Who knew Danny Kaye could act? I shouldn’t have been surprised (as if doing comedy isn’t really acting), but I am so used to him in full-out zany mode that I was surprised. But he’s more than plausible in a dramatic role, so much so that periodic reversions to his previous comedic shtick is actually mildly irritating.
The Five Pennies is a biopic of cornet player and band leader Loring Red Nichols (Danny Kaye). He arrives in New York from Ogden, Utah, during the 1920s, full of confidence that one day all the best musicians (white musicians, anyway) will be working for him. He’s confident, a bit of a loose cannon, a bit moody and totally in love with his cornet. But chanteuse Willa Stutsman (Babara Bel Geddes) can’t resist him and they marry. But just as Red is beginning to finally make a name for himself as a bandleader (which includes future bandleaders Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller), Willia realizes she is pregnant.
Red toys with the idea of settling down so they can raise their daughter, but in his heart he wants to keep up with his band, so they opt instead to bring their baby, Dorothy, with them on tour, until Willa finally puts her foot down. At six years old, Dorothy has only lived in hotels, knows how to play poker and goes to bed at two in the morning. But Red doesn’t want to settle down quite so soon and sends Dorothy to a boarding school while he finishes his contract touring.
But when Dorothy contracts polio at school, Red is guilt-stricken. He is sure it is his fault, his neglect that caused it and when the doctors tell him that Dorothy will probably never walk again, he tosses his cornet away (literally, into the San Francisco Bay), takes a job at a shipyard and devotes his time to helping his daughter walk again.
I have to admit, I was impressed by Kaye’s performance, especially during the most dramatic scenes involving his daughter dealing with polio. He is naturalistic and never histrionic, playing a man who is far from perfect. It’s an interesting contrast to his very over-the-top comedic style. But unlike some people, when they depart from their usual persona, I did not feel he was a pale shadow of himself. I could have actually used less of the comedic-patter moments or bits of Danny Kaye style comedy (though I enjoy many of his out-right comedies, like The Court Jester).
Barbara Bel Geddes as Red’s wife, Willa, is also very good, a fine, naturalistic actor also not prone to histrionics. I’ve only seen her in two films (this and Vertigo), but she’s an actress I would like to see more of. Whereas a Bette Davis would avail herself of the opportunity to demonstrate how much her character is suffering, Bel Geddes and Kaye keep the focus of their grief squarely on its cause, which is their daughter.
Bel Geddes also makes for one of the most adult and knowing romantic interests for Danny Kaye that I’ve seen. Usually, he’s a bit of a man-child, hopelessly in love with a bombshell (usually Virginia Mayo), but in The Five Pennie, he’s more of a real character and she meets him on his own level and they are a very plausible couple…a word I don’t usually find myself using in reference to films.
Perhaps it is partly how they spend years together working to help Dorothy walk again, spend time as a family, which doesn’t feel excessively mawkish – and I enjoyed that aspect of the film very much. It’s not a perfect film, but it was surprisingly moving.
And of course there is a lot of music! Sylvia Fine (Danny Kaye’s wife) wrote several songs for Danny Kaye to sing. There is a fair amount of band music…and two exciting appearances by Louis Armstrong. Red Nichols was not a band leader I was previously aware of, but he really did found a band that at one point or another included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Gene Krupa. He formed his band in the 1920s in the Dixieland style (hot jazz), which originated in New Orleans. His band, Red Nichols and the Five Pennies, was meant to reference the fact that there were five pennies in a nickel, though he often had more than five men in his band.
One thing that made Nichols unique was that he could actually read and arrange music and sight read, which not all jazz musicians could do – many of them were self-taught. His father was a college music professor and Nichols learned early. Though as a result of his formal training, he was a bit more formal in his playing, though he could still improvise quite well.
But his bands were fairly small and during the 1930s, when swing became popular, he fell out of favor (he was apparently over-valued during the ’20s and undervalued during the ’30s). Swing bands were much larger, more formalized and a bit less focused on improvisation (though Duke Ellington always balanced individual improvisation with ensemble playing) and it was not the style of music Nichols preferred to play. However, Dixieland was revived after WWII and Red Nichols formed his own band, which enjoyed great popularity. That is even him we hear in The Five Pennies whenever Danny Kaye “plays” the cornet, though Kaye worked hard to make it look good.
This was my contribution to the Darlin’ Dallasers Blogathon, hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews, in honor of the many actors who appeared in the long successful TV series Dallas. Barbara Bel Geddes was Miss Ellie Ewing, the matriarch of the family, and appeared in 300 episodes. She had a remarkably diverse and successful career: movies (which include Hitchcock, noir, musicals, dramas), stage (she appeared in the original Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) and television. Which is an impressive resume. She brings a lot of dignity, warmth and a firm anchor to The Five Pennies that could otherwise have felt a bit un-moored.
Be sure to read all the rest of the posts on celebration of Dallas and it’s many actors!
And here’s a few bonus video. The very great Louis Armstrong makes three appearances in the film. In the last half of the video, he and Red perform “When the Saints Go Marching In” together. In the beginning, Barbara Bel Geddes keeps giving Kaye more alcohol (in a teacup, to fool any police who might raid?) after he boasted that he’s very used to drinking up in Ogden, Utah. He gets drunk, but makes a comeback to play with Armstrong.
Barbara Bel Geddes does not do her own singing in the film, though she does a fair amount of lip syncing, since her character sings for Red’s band.
Here is the real Red Nichols and his Five Pennies in 1929. Notice the size of the band, much smaller than the bands of the swing era, and which emphasized more improvisation as a group.