By Kelly Anderson
Danny Kaye was heralded as one of the greatest entertainers of his time. Acclaimed as a great comedian from the beginning, he was also a fine singer, dancer and actor. His shows at the Palladium in London are legendary and his movie career brought him world-wide acclaim.
Danny rose from doing the Borscht Belt circuit of vaudeville to nightclubs in New York. He came to the attention of playwright Moss Hart who wrote him into the Broadway musical Lady in the Dark; this is where he stopped the show singing the tune Tschaikowsky, running through the names of 56 Russian composers in just 35 seconds! His penchant for fast paced patter would be a part of his repertoire always, but he also could sing a ballad — “charming” is what Cole Porter said of his vocalizing. Hollywood soon beckoned and Danny ended up making some wonderful films for several studios before confining himself to television in the 60s with specials and finally his own variety series, The Danny Kaye Show.
Picking his top five films is no easy task for the fan who loves all things Kaye. In truth, he always brings something special to the table, even in films that were beneath him. But here goes with my stab at it and the reasons why...
5. Hans Christian Andersen (1952)
Hans Christian Andersen is a change of pace for the comedian and shows off his ability to play it straight. The score is by Broadway composer Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed) and the screenplay is by Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It With You). Danny is endearing as the Danish storyteller in a narrative that is all fairy tale itself. He gets to sing some absolutely great songs and in perhaps one of his most touching moments on screen, sings The Ugly Duckling to a boy whose head has been shaved because of surgery and who feels outcast. An entire generation of kids grew up listening to the soundtrack over and over and it has magic throughout.
4. Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)
Danny Kaye is delightful in this adaptation of the wonderful James Thurber short story, playing a man who is henpecked and lives with his mother (nicely played by the always reliable Fay Bainter) but who flourishes in his dreams. The dreams are the heart of the film, allowing Danny to be a sea captain, a river boat gambler, a surgeon and even a cowboy hero. In a nice touch Virginia Mayo plays the girl in each of the fantasies, so when she shows up in real life and needs his help, he becomes embroiled in a search for missing diamonds. The script is littered with quotable lines like his mother saying “You haven’t even touched your milquetoast.” There were a couple of major cuts in the film, the footage of which apparently doesn’t exist anymore, including an enticing scene where Boris Karloff appears as Frankenstein. Universal not only agreed to allow the “Frankenstein make-up” to be used but even sent over their guru Jack Pierce who created it for the 1931 original.
3. Wonder Man (1945)
Wonder Man was only his second picture and shows how quickly Danny Kaye adapted to movies. Kaye plays twins, one a book-worm and one a nightclub entertainer. When the latter is rubbed out by gangsters, his ghost seeks out the book worm to put the criminals behind bars. With some rather excellent split screen techniques, at least by the standards of the time, Danny is hilarious as he switches between the two characters, often in a split second as the ghost enters the body of his live twin. It all ends up with Kaye once again on the run, fleeing this time into the opera. With the District Attorney in attendance, Kaye tries to tell the D.A. while singing the opera, that Choo Choo Laverne’s real name is Minnie Smith.
2. Knock on Wood (1954)
Knock on Wood was Danny Kaye’s personal choice as his best movie. The plot is intricate involving Danny the ventriloquist being used by rival spy gangs to smuggle in stolen blueprints. When they start killing one another, you-know-who is suspected of being “the Red-Headed Ripper” and he runs from the police in a delightful chase that ends with Kaye ruining a ballet as only he can. Once again, Danny sings several super songs by Sylvia Fine (Mrs. Kaye) including his hilarious Irish turn in Monohan O’Han.
1. The Court Jester (1956)
The Court Jester tops our list as it brings all the elements of Danny Kaye’s incredible talent to the screen in a blended and genuinely funny script. The idea is a take-off on swashbuckling films in general and Robin Hood in particular. Echoes of the classic Errol Flynn film are readily apparent, right down to the casting of Basil Rathbone as the villain. The film is set in medieval England where the King and his family have been killed and only an infant heir to the throne survives the carnage. A masked vigilante, the Black Fox, is fighting for the true King and Danny plays a former circus performer who has joined him. He infiltrates the castle in the guise of the new court jester Giacomo, and is immediately embroiled in all the palace intrigue and drama. Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) falls in love with him, he is hypnotized by witch Griselda (Mildred Natwick) into making love to Angela, and our unlikely hero is taken as an assassin hired by Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The climatic sword fight with Rathbone is nothing short of dazzling as a hypnotized Danny becomes the greatest with the blade—until fingers snap him out of the spell. The snapping back and forth taking him from expert to buffoon is hilarious.
A most memorable sequence involves Kaye trying to remember whether the poison that Griselda has put in the drinks is in the “vestle with the pestle” or the “chalice from the palace.” Danny Kaye does the tongue twister, sings several Sammy Cahn—Sylvia Fine tunes and saves England in grand style.
Danny Kaye has left some wonderful moments on film, television and recordings. He has a healthy presence on You Tube, which in this day and age is very important. Whether you are meeting him for the first time or reacquainting yourself, you will discover that Mr. Kaye still thrills and entertains in a way that few ever did with classic routines that remain a testament to the man and his era.
From the Author
Kelly Anderson - Guest Blogger
Danny Kaye was a man of many accomplishments. If he became interested in something, he mastered it. He learned how to fly—but not just a small plane. He became a jet pilot and a good one. He became an accomplished Chinese cook and was welcome in professional kitchens all over the world. He became interested in surgery and sat in on so many procedures that Dr. Debakey (the well-known heart specialist) allowed him to close operations.
In 1955, he became involved with UNICEF and spent countless hours over 32 years flying all over the world for the organization, raising money and spreading the word on their work with children. (He was part of the delegation who accepted the Nobel Prize for UNICEF.)
Kaye also became a conductor of symphony orchestras and guested in benefit performances all over the world, even though he didn’t read music. Asked how he could conduct, he said, “I memorize.” In that last capacity, I had my only opportunity to see him. That evening will always be evergreen in my memory, sitting in Jones Hall in Houston in 1974 and seeing my idol perform and then getting his autograph after. It was an amazing night as he enchanted the hall with not only his comic stunts with the orchestra, but also his knowledge of the music.
The fact that today he is unknown by so many is something I would like to remedy with the greatest of speed. To that end I created a Facebook page in his honor, Danny Kaye-King of Jesters, and am greatly pleased to see his TV series, The Danny Kaye Show, finally being rebroadcast weekdays on JLTV. His work is amazing and his legacy is rich. He most certainly deserves a renaissance.