Monday, January 28, 2013

Review - Danny Kaye: King of Jesters

Danny Kaye was the first performer ever to be personally requested by His Highness to headline a Command Performance, making him King of Jesters and Jester of Kings—but as far as we of Team Bartilucci are concerned, he’s always been royalty in our book!  As longtime TotED readers know, I’ve been a big fan of Danny Kaye (1913—1987) since I was a kid. 

If you’re as much as a Danny Kaye fan as I am, author David Koenig’s latest book: Danny Kaye: King of Jesters (Bonaventure Press, 2012) is a MUST-read!  Koenig’s previous books include Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland; and Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks. He truly does Kaye justice with his affectionate yet clear-eyed view of Kaye’s long, remarkable career—a refreshing and welcome change of pace from certain other biographers who flaunt unfounded rumors about him, using un-called-for scandal-sheet tactics!  Koenig’s book focuses on Kaye’s film and TV work, and the behind-the-scenes info about the making of Kaye’s 17 theatrical films, as well as his TV shows, including his award-winning variety series The Danny Kaye Show (1963—1967).

Like so many great entertainers, the former David Daniel Kaminski was a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn.  Back then, I was a child growing up in the Bronx in the early 1960s, seeing Danny Kaye for the first time on TV.  One weekend afternoon, WPIX was broadcasting Samuel Goldwyn’s delightful and surprisingly soulful 1947 film adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and it quickly became one of my all-time favorite movies (and still is!).  Moreover, our mother was a Danny Kaye fan with a passion for fashion; in fact, Mom and my Auntie Joy had been models in their youth, getting opportunities to wear the fashions of designers like …Mitty’s Irene Sharaff, including fabulous hats, some almost as daring as the ones from …Mitty’s  “Anatole of Paris” number. Mom could rock a chapeau like nobody’s business!  Anyway, at home, our whole family often enjoyed Danny’s films, with their catchy music, clever slapstick, and zany wordplay, courtesy of the brilliant, talented woman behind the man:  the amazing Sylvia Fine, Danny’s lyricist, composer, manager, and in 1940, his wife for the rest of his life. The talented Sylvia was responsible for many of Kaye’s most popular songs and musical routines; no wonder Danny became my first celebrity crush, with him and Sylvia as one of my favorite show-biz power couples!

Actress and co-star Betty Garrett (On the Town; Neptune’s Daughter; TV’s Laverne & Shirley) recalled the chemistry between Sylvia and Danny when they met at the Sunday Night Varieties: “I was with Danny in the little Manhattan club when Sylvia was brought in to write some special material. I observed the magic moment when they discovered each other. It was truly love at first sight. I think they fell in love with one another’s talent as much as with one another.”

As Koenig says in his introduction, Wonder Man wasn’t merely the title of one of his hit movies. With his remarkable range, Kaye was versatile as all get-out, racking up triumphs in the worlds of records, television, stage and screen.  To some extent, the versatile, multifaceted Kaye was almost too good, at least from a branding standpoint!  Then as now, agents had to market their clients, but Kaye had so many talents and hooks, the powers that be apparently didn’t quite know where to start with him, as Koenig explains:

“…Kaye’s greatest obstacle to mass popularity was that he could do too much, too well.  He was impossible to classify. Without a brand, he found it difficult initially to make a name for himself and ultimately to keep that name remembered. For his most celebrated triumphs were live on stage, creating an in-person experience that could not be preserved to its full effect except in the memories of the individuals in the audience.  Film, as it turned out, was possibily the worst medium at capturing a Danny Kaye experience—trapping him in a particular character and story, awkwardly trying to show off as many of his divergent talents as possible…Nonetheless, the motion picture is entertainment’s most faithful time capsule, and consequently, offered Kaye his best-remembered roles: the storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, the daydreamer Walter Mitty, and the tongue-tied Court Jester with the vessel in the pestle.  Or was it the flagon with the dragon?”

Danny Kaye and frequent co-star Virginia Mayo
When Danny signed with his first agent, Harry Bestry, in 1937, he'd developed a “Mad Russian” character, to introduce a thickly-accented version of the song “Dinah” (“Deenah, is there anyone feenah/In the state of Caroleenah?”)  Bestry began marketing Danny as The Mad Russian. This character was also spoofed in Warner Bros’. Looney Tunes: the hilarious 1945 short Book Revue (a.k.a Book Review), directed by Bob Clampett.  How fitting, considering Danny’s comedy was broad early on, from his years as a tummler in the Borscht Belt. As you can well imagine, Kaye had audiences in stitches with his over-the-top accents, screaming, and facial contortions.  How could anyone not laugh?

According to the IMDb, although Danny made his Broadway debut in Straw Hat Revue (1939), it was the stage production of the musical Lady in the Dark (1940), starring Broadway superstar Gertrude Lawrence, that brought agents flocking to Danny’s door at last.  Sylvia helped create the routines and gags, and wrote most of the songs that he performed. Danny could sing and dance like many others, but his specialty was reciting those tongue-twisting songs and monologues.. Danny could sing and dance like many others, but his specialty was reciting those tongue-twisting songs and monologues.

Koenig goes on to say that Samuel Goldwyn had intended to use Kaye as a new Eddie Cantor. Goldwyn did end up hiring Thurber to contribute to the script, but most of his suggestions were ignored. The ones that were used justifiably got the boot (and I don’t mean the film’s villain!), including a melancholy Irish daydream and lots of small talk between Mitty and his dreary so-called loved-ones. I'd heard that other …Mitty scenes left on the cutting-room floor included a pub scene (meant as part of the Irish scene, perhaps?) included a scene with our hero dealing with a Frankenstein monster (to play off co-star Boris Karloff, maybe?), or something like it!

Then there was the epic comedy The Court Jester (1956), now justifiably hailed as a classic. It was well received upon its original theatrical release, but it ended up being so expensive to produce that it seemed doomed to lose money—sheesh, it’s always something! Even more frustrating, Kaye’s star had begun to fade, since he’d  been off movie screens for two years, albeit for humanitarian reasons:  he’d been traveling the world for UNICEF (more about that shortly).  Luckily, time has been kind; over the years, The Court Jester started to turn up frequently on TV and on Blu-Ray and DVD, getting discovered by new audiences who love to laugh.

Danny enjoyed appearing onstage, but seemed uncomfortable doing interviews, talk shows, or other promotional work on his days off; to be fair, who can blame him?  Still, by the early 1950s, his agent thought he needed better rapport with the general public.  Fate stepped in on a jet plane, where Danny found himself sitting next to the head of UNICEF. Their work helping the impoverished children of the world touched Danny deeply. He agreed to travel to promote the organization, and did so tirelessly for the remaining 32 years of his life. 

Furthermore, earlier this month, TCM celebrated Danny Kaye’s 100th birthday (give or take a year) with a 24-hour marathon of virtually every one of his classic movies, hosted by Robert Osborne and Danny's journalist daughter Dena Kaye, as well as airings of The Danny Kaye Show and a 1968 episode from his stint on The Dick Cavett Show.  Dare we hope there might also DVD/Blu-Ray editions of Kaye’s classic films in the near future, too?

Click here to read John Greco's great Twenty-Four Frames interview with author David Koenig!

Coming Soon to TotED: Wonder Man!
Enjoy the Looney Tunes cartoon "Book Review" playfully spoofing Danny Kaye!


  1. Dorian, I enjoyed your post on the incredibly talented Danny Kaye! I think it was simply a matter of casting Danny in the right movies. THE COURT JESTER and WHITE CHRISTMAS are two excellent examples of roles that fit him like a glove. Incidentally, they are the two Kaye films most often shown on TV.

    1. Many thanks, Rick; I'm glad you enjoyed my book review! You're right, getting Danny cast in roles where he could really shine was crucial. I'm just glad that David Koenig's book and Danny's centennial (give or take a year :-)) gave him more positive exposure for future movie buffs to watch and enjoy. And let's hear it for Sylvia Fine, the talented woman behind the man :-)

  2. "Like so many great entertainers, the former David Daniel Kaminski was a native New Yorker."

    Ahem! I'm now tempted to start a blog site devoted to all the talent that's come out of Texas.

    But kvetching aside (did you know the Borscht Belt stretched all the way down to the Pecos River?), good write-up on a book that will eventually grace my own collection. A particular selling point is the account of the romance between Kaye and Sylvia Fine. Long-lasting show business love affairs (especially if they start out as love at first sight) never fail to really tickle my heart.

    1. Fear not, Michael, I'm the first to agree your beloved home state of Texas is a mighty great state indeed, literally and figuratively, with oodles of wonderfully talented people and plenty of beauty of all kinds. I'm just saying don't underestimate us scrappy native New Yorkers! ;-D

      With your tender, romantic heart, Michael, I definitely think you'll want to read the book for Danny and Sylvia's longtime happy marriage, as well as Sylvia's genius at knowing how to show Danny to his best advantage. I bet Denise would like it, too! I hope you'll get a chance to read it soon, my friend!

      P.S.: Still LOL over "...did you know the Borscht Belt stretched all the way down to the Pecos River"! :-)

  3. Who knew that Danny Kaye, one of the most underrated actors of all time, helped Unicef? That's awesome. Anyway, I loved watching Hans Christian Anderson as a kid (you might see it in a future post), and reading this wonderful post made my respect for him deepen even more. Plus, he's LOL funny. :)

    1. Matt, you're clearly a gent of great taste in classic movies and stars! :-D I'm delighted that you enjoyed my DANNY KAYE... book review! I was already a fan of Danny's comedies fan to begin with, but like you, I admired him even more when I learned of his work with UNICEF. If you do indeed do a post about HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN sometime, I for one will look forward to reading it!

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post on Danny Kaye. I did not realize that Kaye starred in so many movies. I love his children"s songs.. "Inchworm" and "The Ugly Duckling".

    1. Dawn, thanks for your kind words and for joining in the DANNY KAYE: KING OF JESTERS conversation! Even I was amazed at his versatile talents, and I thought I was a Danny Kaye expert! :-) I'm so glad you and other fans, old and new, are getting into Danny now! By the way, "Inchworm" and "Thumbelina" were my favorites when I was a little girl! :-)

  5. No need to convince me, Dorian. You KNOW I love Danny Kaye with all my heart and soul. :)

    My favorite is still THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (unavailable for viewing anywhere which is a travesty) and secondly, THE COURT JESTER. I mean, if Kaye had only made two films and these, uh, them - well, you know - that would have made him a genius in my book.

    Thanks for bringing Kaye to blog-land attention once again, kiddo. I really enjoyed reading this.

    I'm just going to have to fork over some cash and buy the Walter Mitty DVD if it exists.

    I was laughing when I read the title of your post: Danny Kaye, King of Jesters...and I naturally finished the sentence with: And Jester of Kings! A great line from a great and very wordy ditty.

    For a jester without an audience is nobody's fool!

    1. Yvette, I'm happy to report that since TCM's recent 24-hour celebration of Danny Kaye's 100th birthday (give or take a year; apparently there's a mild discrepency, but who's counting, right? :-)), Danny's daughter, Dena Kaye, is beating the proverbial bushes to bring Danny back into the public eye. Also, a new film version of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is coming out this year. If the powers that be get the the new DVD/BluRay versions of his films out this here, that'll be good enough for me! :-) I daresay you and I will both be keeping our eyes peeled for more news about this Danny Kaye renaissance as it develops! :-D

    2. Who's in the new version? Haven't heard anything about it. Oh well, it won't, can't be anywhere near as good as Danny's version - so who cares?

      I got the quote from the song wrong: It's 'a jester without employment is nobody's fool.' I think. Whatever, it's genius. :)

    3. Yvette, the star of the new SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY is Ben Stiller, who admittedly is a funny and talented guy, but even Stiller would have quite a challenge to top our man Danny Kaye! Just get Dena Kaye and Company to get a spiffy new edition of the 1947 version of ...WALTER MITTY out to us adoring fans, and that'll be good enough for me! LOL over the COURT JESTER line "A jester without employment is nobody's fool"! :-D

  6. Dor,
    This was such an interesting read. I'm a big fan of Danny's. You write that his star started to wane after just a two year absence. That's unfortunate as today's actors, sometimes take 3-5 yr breaks between films and nobody writes them off. And Danny was doing work for UNICEF. It's not like he was on a two year bender.

    Interesting that he was brought on to be the next Cantor. I can see the similarities in ways. Danny had more of a screen presence for me though.

    I actually have to two behind the scenes book on Disney. I purchased them a few years ago before going to Disneyworld though then I loaned them out to a friend who never returned them. (Must get a deposit for any future loan outs! ha ha)

    Another thorough and entertaining post, Dor. Looking forward to what's next.
    Say hello to Vinnie and the kiddos.

    1. Page, we're glad you're pitching for Team Danny Kaye! I was as surprised and dismayed as you when I found people were forgetting him after only 2 years! As you put it so well about today's stars: "It's not like (Danny) was on a two-year bender." People should've been singing hosannas to the guy, not all but forgetting him! I'm glad David Koenig's book and the recent Danny-thon helped to bring him back into the public eye, with indications of more to come, according to Dena Kaye! Thanks for being on our team! :-D

      P.S.: It always makes me smile when you guys call me "Dor!" Beaucoup thanks!

      P.P.S.: I'm working on a TotED post about WONDER MAN. No getting away from Danny - thank goodness!


  7. Great review of a really terrific new book! I've been a Kaye fan for years and years and David Koenig does him justice, finally! Love your blog, Dorian!

    1. Hey, Lisa, thanks for your praise of my review of DANNY KAYE: KING OF JESTERS! I agree, David Koenig truly does do Danny justice, and it's about time!

      I also very much enjoyed and appreciated your enthusiastic comments on my post about THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY a while back. I'm delighted that you're a fellow Kaye fan - I applaud your great taste! Danny's daughter Dena Kaye is helping to raise Kaye awareness, too. Let's do what we can to get his star burning even brighter! Thanks again, Lisa!

      P.S.: I'm currently working on a blog post here at TotED for WONDER MAN, too; stay tuned!