“Potato Salad!” And A Million Other Reasons I Love Danny Kaye
Confession time: When I was 12-years-old I was head over heels in love with Danny Kaye.
I had two VHS tapes chock full of his films, labeled in childish scrawl; sacred possessions that no one in the house save for me was allowed to touch. It happened over a long-ago Thanksgiving when the American Movie Classics channel (back when it really was the American Movie Classics channel) aired a festival of Kaye’s films … and everything else in my life stopped. I was already in love with old movies, courtesy Charlie Chaplin, but I think it was Kaye’s films that really solidified my obsessive personality when it came to the world of yesteryear. I immersed myself into his eye-popping, Technicolor dream world all day, every day– and I do mean all day. I wanted to be as beautiful as his best gal Virginia Mayo; I wanted my life to erupt into sparkling production numbers at a moment’s notice alongside Vera-Ellen; and I wanted a fella as sweet and honest and hilarious as Kaye. (I’ve obviously given up on the first two, but am still holding out for the latter…)
This was 1993. My 17-year-old sister and I shared a bedroom that blared her beloved Rage Against the Machine and Metallica, fighting with our mother on just why it was perfectly reasonable to paint the bedroom walls black. And this same highly rebellious ’90s teen had the misfortune to share the room with me: someone who only wanted to hear Danny Kaye sing “Ballin’ the Jack” for the trillionth time.
We have since reconciled.
(And for the record, I love Rage Against the Machine.)
I didn’t fully realize just how over-the-moon I was about his films until one day, during my sophomore year of High School, a girl I’d gone to Elementary School with came up to me and asked if I was “still in love with Danny Kaye.” I blinked, not understanding at first … and then … oh, the memories. This was the girl who I’d shared a bunk with at summer camp during the fifth grade and had kept up at night reciting the songs from The Court Jester.
No one could quite understand my obsession with his films, least of all me, only the fact that .. well … I just … liked them. A lot. Even him saying something as simple as “potato salad” (which he does as he swings from a tree branch in 1945′s Wonder Man) could send me into a fit of laughter. As the years wore on, his films have remained favorites, and in light of his centenary I have happily revisted my childhood fascination. And you know what? I still love him, and throwaway lines like “potato salad” still makes me laugh.
And the reason is simple: Danny is fun.
Film critic David Thomson, whom I admire deeply in spite of our often polarized views, once criticized of Kaye: “[Kaye] is one of those people who was a wonder once but who looks frantic and alien now … now one can pick up the feeling he has an inhuman energy on screen, somewhere between child, machine and rogue cuckoo clock.”
Mr. Thomson, I respectfully disagree: Kaye’s films are far from “frantic and alien.”
He is reliably ridiculous, but unlike, say, Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey, Kaye is a bit more … grounded. Oh sure, he excels at playing the eccentric buffoon–but he never is a buffoon. Rather, Kaye’s characters tend to be real guys with really bad luck, taking his cue from the great silent comedians. There is often a Keatonesque quality to his insane antics– a man against the chaos of the universe. He has a measure of the Chaplinesque pathos –his is a sentimental heart if ever there was one. And he is every bit the Harold Lloyd every-day lovelorn lad. His gift of pantomime, also a silent film technique, is what set him apart from the rest of the comedians of the war and postwar years, as well as his very unique talent for tongue-twisting, nonsensical songs.
The ingredients are simple; the results are magic.
Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint at it you can.
But yet, there’s nothing simple about Kaye’s craft or his life. He was a man of great complexities: he could be a difficult man, and yet somehow refreshingly simple. He was at ease regaling royalty, and even more at home having coffee with a plumber. His is a fascinating paradox found within all the great comedians. Kaye is a legend because of the sheer weight of his dexterous talent (the movies were just one aspect of his rainbow career), but his legend cannot be discussed without mentioning the contributions of the brains behind the operation: Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine. Both Brooklynites, the two met in 1939 at an audition and married the next year. Fine not only wrote many of Kaye’s most popular songs, but managed his early stage career and was key to his success—she would become a Peabody Award winner and Oscar nominee for her truly unique talents. “I am a wife-made man,” Kaye once said– and it’s absolutely true. Fine and Kaye were a perfect business team– their personal life, however, is another story. (And will not be addressed here.)
Performing since the age of 13 (he ditched school to work the Catskills) he hit Broadway in a big way, eventually coming to Hollywood at the behest of Sam Goldwyn. (A shrewd decision indeed, for Kaye had already rejected an offer from MGM.) America was in its darkest days of WWII when Kaye’s first feature film, Up in Arms, hit the screen. It was a terrific success and was something new: audiences had never seen anything quite like Kaye. His unusual musical hybrid must have been startling—even to the 21st century viewer, watching his screen debut in what is an unabashed piece of wartime propaganda, it is impossible to take your eyes from him. An unconventional leading man to say the least (Goldwyn had Kaye die his red hair blonde to look more “American”), he radiated a rare likability and impressed the infamously unimpressed Goldwyn to keep him on contract.
Coupled with the stunning starlet Virginia Mayo starting with his second film, Wonder Man, the two would become one of the most popular onscreen pairings in film history. Although not as well known today as, say, Tracy and Hepburn or Fred and Ginger or Bogie and Bacall, they are every bit as memorable and became reliable box-office draws throughout the 1940s. Writes Kaye’s biographer David Koenig: “Kaye’s greatest obstacle to mass popularity was that he could do too much too well.” And he is right: Kaye was an expert in mimicry (his imitation of languages proliferates his musical numbers) an expert in pantomime (not since the silent comics had anyone used pantomime to such full effect) and an expert song and dance man (his solid voice and a graceful agility made him a joy to watch). And lest we forget his mastery as a chef and pilot…
“He was impossible to classify,” continues Koenig. “Without a brand, he found it initially difficult to make a name for himself and ultimately to keep that name remembered.”
But remembered he would be.
Yet as outrageous as Kaye is on film, Hollywood tempered what he’d perfected on stage. His stage act is the true Kaye: it’s riotous, raucous and a wee-bit raunchy. Kaye’s performances at the London Palladium (and this is not hyperbole) foreshadowed the likes of Bealtemania in the hysteria that surrounded him. (Life magazine called it “worshipful hysteria.) His famous rendition of Fine’s “Melody in 4-F” that is put to film in his debut Up In Arms, is quite a different performance when he performed it live for the troops on a USO tour.
Watching him on stage is almost magnetic: his body seems to defy gravity—a virtuosic marvel.
Today, most people remember him for his classics: The Court Jester, White Christmas, and Hans Christian Anderson, all family films that hearken to his groundbreaking work with UNICEF. Kaye, you see, was a man with a profound sense of purpose. The fact remains uncontested: Kaye was the first celebrity to focus his pull on a worldwide nonprofit cause. For more than 30 years, Kaye was UNICEF’s Goodwill Ambassador and tirelessly campaigned for the nonprofit: appearing at benefits, visiting leper colonies, giving command performances, and making speeches to champion his cause. (He appears in the Guinness Book of World Records, to this day, as “the world’s Fastest-Flying Entertainer” thank to his mind-blowing 65-city tour that took place over the span of just FIVE days in 1968.) Of all Kaye’s contributions to the arts, his work with UNICEF is what he wanted to most be remembered fo:r
I believe deeply that children are more powerful than oil, more beautiful than rivers, more precious than any other natural resource a country can have … I feel that the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life is to be associated with UNICEF.”
This love for children is evident in Kaye’s best work, as he often feels like an overgrown child—full of tenderness, sincerity, and an overwhelming sense of wonder.
My own personal favorite films of his are the Sam Goldywn vehicles: those light, fluffy, frilly, frivolous tufts of ’40s fun. (And oh, those Goldwyn Girls.) His work with Fox in the ’50s—those splashy, inventive rom-com musicals–are likewise sterling entertainments that truly hold up and are currently enjoying pristine Blu-ray releases through Fox Home Entertainment. (I can only hope the same will be true of the Goldwyn titles in the near future.)
This year has marked Danny Kaye’s 2013 centenary. The year has been a marvelous feast for Kaye fans, with a host of events worldwide, and finally, here at the end of it all, The Pictorial has finally found its voice to pay tribute to a man who is very much responsible for its rapturous love of the movies. (Although, in actuality, the festivities ought to have been celebrated 2 years ago … thanks goes to Dena Kaye, for revealing her father’s true birthday.) As such, The Pictorial is pleased to present a selection of some of Kaye’s finest screen moments.
The following represent the first five films of Kaye’s filmography, from 1944 through 1948– a grand slam if ever there was one. As much as I adore his 50s films (The Court Jester, On The Riviera and Knock on Wood to name but a few) it is Kaye’s successive string of early films that, for me, run the gamut of his dizzying array of talents.
Happy hundredth, darling Danny. My 12-year-old heart will always beat wildly for you.
UP IN ARMS (1944)
Danny Kaye is quite a king of scat. His motorized tongue created a singular form of pantomime that audiences in the ’40s had never seen–nor would audiences of any era ever see again. This scene best exemplifies the elasticity of his face–those expressions that shape shift like play-doh. But more than that, Kaye is terrifically young, and those big blue eyes of his seem made for Technicolor–and his fludity in front of the camera foreshadow his soon-to-be explosive career. Here, in a number penned by his wife Sylvia Fine, he takes a poke and musical films– and nails it dead-on.
WONDER MAN (1945)
You gotta see it to believe it because on paper this sounds as ridiculous as it is. But in Danny’s hands, it’s platinum gold. Danny plays a dual role: both halves of a pair of “super identical twins.” When one is murdered, the other takes his place as a nightclub entertainer. In this scene, the surviving twin is lured to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park by his brother’s ghost. Hilarity ensues. (Not to mention groundbreaking special effects that earned the film an Oscar.)
THE KID FROM BROOKLYN (1946)
This warmhearted film is perhaps Danny’s sweetest role in perhaps the sweetest musical comedy to ever come from the Goldwyn studio. Danny plays a mild-mannered milk man who gets mixed up with a middleweight prize fighter and his kooky crew of managers after supposedly KO’ing him in a brawl. In this scene, Danny explains to the gang that he had nothing to do with the fighter getting KO’d– to no avail. Eve Arden , Walter Abel, and Lionel Stander round out the fantastic supporting cast.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947)
Perhaps epitomizing Danny Kaye’s onscreen character as a sweet-tempered every man is his iconic role as the daydreaming writer Walter Mitty. A man who lives his life through the fantastic stories he dreams up, Mitty meets the girl of his dreams (literally) which lands him in the middle of a very real murder plot. In this scene, Kaye encounters one of the men out to kill him (none other than Boris Karloff) and crescendos with classic Kaye eccentricity. (Ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa…)
A SONG IS BORN (1948)
Howard Hawks remade his Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper classic comedy Ball of Fire just six years after its initial release. A Song is Born is the result and, although I know I will be ostracized for saying this, I prefer the remake to the original. Kaye and Mayo take on the leads (this their final onscreen pairing) only this time they are joined by a literal who’s who of jazz greats: Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Lionel Hampton are among the musical luminaries that make up the supporting cast.