Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wonder Man: Potato Salad Days!

It’s been said that our late loved ones are always with us, watching over us in the hereafter—but Danny Kaye takes the concept and runs with it in 1945’s supernatural RKO/Samuel Goldwyn comedy Wonder Man (WM)!  If you thought Danny was hilarious on his own, wait’ll you see him in the dual roles of famous nightclub star Buzzy Bellew and his brother Edwin Dingle!  As the Doublemint gum commercials, say, it’s double your pleasure, double your fun!

Directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (I Wake up Screaming, Sun Valley Serenade; several Charlie Chan films, among others), WM’s screenwriters included Up in Arms’ Don Hartman; Melville Shavelson from Kaye’s 1946 boxing romp The Kid From Brooklyn; Philip Rapp, creator of Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks; Arthur Sheekman, gag writer for The Marx Brothers; and Jack Jevne, Eric Hatch, and Eddie Moran from Topper and Way Out West. If these fellas didn’t know their comic ghosts, I don’t know who would!  They say that too many cooks spoil the broth, but in this case, WM turned out to be a musical-comedy smorgasboard and a hip, hilarious, tuneful romp indeed!

From Borscht Belt tummler to Broadway star to multitalented movie star, Danny’s  secret weapon was Sylvia Fine, Danny’s brilliantly talented lyricist, composer, manager, and his wife from 1940 until Danny’s death in 1987.  Sylvia was truly the woman behind the man.  With her brilliant lyrics and wordplay, and Danny’s unbeatable talent and energy, they were an amazing power couple!

Sylvia & Danny:
They're so fine!
Danny’s first film, the 1944 service comedy Up in Arms, was a box-office hit. But with the theatrical release of WM in June 1945, Danny really knocked it out of the park—Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, that is!  As I’ve said in other TotED blog posts, as a native New Yorker, I enjoy watching movies where the action is set in any of New York City’s five boroughs.  I don’t even mind that WM was actually filmed at the Samuel Goldwyn Studios in California and not NYC, since the cast, writers, and sets all have that New York feeling (not to be confused with that Barton Fink feeling).  Even better, the cast includes Huntz Hall, one of our favorite Bowery Boys, as a young sailer who unwittingly gets entangled in the wacky, ghostly hijinks.

We viewers first meet Buzzy Bellew (Kaye) as the star attraction at New York City’s posh Pelican Club (what the world needs now are more affordable swanky nightclubs!  But I digress….).  The brash and brassy Buzzy is as likable as he is zany and hyper, likable, bursting with energy.  To borrow a line from Steve Martin back in his stand-up comedy days, Buzzy is a wild and crazy guy (in the most entertaining ways, of course)!
Enough bad news! Where's the sports page?
Buzzy and his Pelican Club co-star, singer/dancer Midge Mallon (dynamite dancer and former Radio City Music Hall Rockette Vera-Ellen in her movie debut, followed by The Kid from Brooklyn; On the Town; White Christmas, and so much more!) have been a couple for a long time.  Although it’s clear that Buzzy and Midge are both into each other, somehow the cute, talented couple never quite manage to actually get hitched at any of their attempted weddings.  But Midge is a good sport about it, perhaps because Buzzy is always funny, sweet, and apologetic—or maybe because their Pelican Club colleague Monte Rossen (Donald Woods from Watch on the Rhine; True Grit; The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and more), is a decent, patient joe who’s willing to wait until Midge finally comes to her senses and realizes the devoted Monte is a better bet when it comes to building a life together. 

*POP* goes the marriage proposal!
Buzzy and Midge are betrothed at last!
Ah, but Buzzy’s serious this time, giving Midge a jack-in-the-box attached to a diamond ring!  Vera-Ellen is adorable as Midge, and she and Danny have delightful chemistry.  And what a dancer she was!  Ironically, according to the TCM Web site, even though Vera-Ellen had a perfectly swell singing voice, her numbers were dubbed!  I guess it was like when Audrey Hepburn’s singing voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady:  they could sing, but apparently not quite well enough for the movies.  Go figure!

People can’t help loving Buzzy—except for notorious mobster, counterfeiter, and killer Ten-Grand Jackson (Steve Cochran, also making his film debut here)!  See, DA O’Brien (Otto Kruger of Murder, My Sweet; Saboteur; High Noon) and the Assistant DA (Richard Lane, best known to Boston Blackie fans as Inspector Farraday) needs Buzzy to testify in the murder trial, one of whose victims include one Choo-Choo Laverne, a fan dancer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Our antic, overly optimistic entertainer is too overconfident to let New York’s Finest provide him with police protection—not a smart move for a high-profile witness in a murder case, especially when Ten-Grand has just been released on bail!

What's this? Inspector Farraday in league with Jules Amthor?!

Alas, Buzzy realizes too late that he should’ve taken advantage of that police protection, or at least taken the time to read those ominous newspaper headlines splashed all over the news.  Instead, Buzzy makes a fatal splash as Ten-Grand’s strong-arm boys Chimp (Allen Jenkins of Ball of Fire, but this time in funny-yet-sinister-villain mode, as he was in Lady on a Train) and Torso (Edward Brophy, ditto, as he was in The Thin Man and All Through the Night) send Buzzy to sleep with the fishes in Prospect Park’s lake. You have to hand it to the writers for being able to make cold-blooded murder funny without being depressing!

Onstage, Buzzy and Midge are on a Bali high!
Enter Buzzy’s twin brother Edwin Dingle (also played by Danny, natch), a quiet, bookish librarian and researcher.  Edwin and Buster (Buzzy’s real name) haven’t been in touch since young Buster ran away to try his hand at show business, rechristening himself as Buzzy Bellew.  Well, the Dingle boys are about to have a family reunion to catch up with each other, avenge Buzzy’s death, and put Ten-Grand Jackson behind bars for good—but that doesn’t mean ectoplasmic Buzzy won’t liven things up with merry, macabre hijinks along the way!  This isn’t Hamlet, you know! What’s more, romance is blooming between Edwin and his charming co-worker Ellen Shanley (Virginia Mayo, my favorite among Danny’s leading ladies since I saw her in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).  Keep your eyes peeled for Natalie Schaefer—yes, Gilligan’s Island’s Lovey Howell herself!—appearing briefly and amusingly as a pesky patron of the local library who’s both bewildered and fascinated by Edwin’s ambidextrous abilities.  But Edwin’s date with Ellen takes a hilariously crackpot turn when Buzzy’s ghostly music gets Edwin all farshimmelt on the way to pick up potato salad for their dinner date, and…well, you may never look at deli food with a straight face again, especially with the hilariously frustrated S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the deli proprietor!   Another highlight: Danny’s madcap sneezy rendition of the classic Russian song “Otchi Chornniya,” and the climactic opera that collapses into a side-splitting free-for-all!  Hey, wouldn’t WM and A Night at the Opera be a swell double-feature? 

I love a man who can cook and wear an apron with confidence!
Fun Fact:  In addition to WM, Steve Cochran and Virginia Mayo also co-starred in such Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning classics as White Heat and and The Best Years of our Lives.  Cochran also co-starred in many of Chester Morris’ aforementioned Boston Blackie movies (a favorite here at Team Bartilucci HQ).  I love the charming chemistry between Kaye and Mayo!  WM was Virginia Mayo's first leading lady role with Danny; before that, she had a brief uncredited role in Up in Arms.

"You can lose your mind/
When brothers are two of a kind!"
Exasperated S.Z. Sakall is his usual "Cuddles"-some self! 
WM did very well indeed come Oscar time, winning for the Best Special Effects for John Fulton’s cinematography and A.W. Johns’ sound effects. Leo Robin and David Rose’s number for Vera-Ellen, “So in Love,” got an Oscar nomination for Best Music, Original Song, as well as Best Music Scoring for a Musical Picture, under Ray Heindorf’s direction.  But I can’t complain about  Heindorf losing, considering the Best Music Scoring Oscar that year went to another of my all-time favorites, Miklós Rózsa for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound!   According to the TCM Web site, at one point in WM, Buzzy impishly slips his torso (no, not Edward Brophy’s character!) on a bust at Prospect Park, quipping, “What is this, trick photography?”  Definitely not “palpably inadequate!”  WM is one of  Danny Kaye’s very best movies!

Dead or alive, Buzzy sure knows how to make an entrance! Hiya, Bro!
Sailor Huntz Hall & pals are gobsmacked at Edwin's supernatural powers, courtesy of Buzzy!

All right, opera singer dame, give someone else a turn!

Aw, don't you just love a happy ending?


  1. "Brash and brassy Buzzy"? Sort of sounds as if he should be working in the Bullpen at Marvel Comics.

    Your comment concerning Buzzy knowing how to make an entrance was spot on target, seeing as how Buzzy's "reappearance" stands as one of my favorite scenes from the film. And it's not every film where shy, bookish librarians are the hero (interestingly enough, I tend to prefer this to A SONG IS BORN. The fact that I'm a potato salad maven could also have something to do with it*).

    (*Just like THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER made me a goose liver maven.)

    1. Mmm, Michael, potato salad and goose liver pate; I sense a dinner party in the making! :-) I wholeheartedly agree with you that Buzzy's initial "reappearance" is one of WONDER MAN's many highlights. And let's hear it for bookish librarians and all shy, bookish folks who manage to save the way one way or another! I've never seen A SONG IS BORN from start to finish, though I've liked the moments I've seen. Still, I confess I prefer the original BALL OF FIRE, but Danny Kaye has had so many successes, he's entitled to occasionally have a merely okay movie on occasion! In any case, Michael, I'm delighted to hear you love WM as much as Vinnie and I do, and Siobhan got a kick out of the the one scene she came across: the opera. Here's hoping she'll like the rest of WM, too! :-D

  2. Fun post, Dorian. Danny Kaye can do no wrong in my book- great entertainer and an even greater human being. Love him in movies, TV, stage and wherever else he may have graced us with his presence.

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Chick; I knew you and I were kindred spirits when it came WONDER MAN in particular and Danny Kaye in general! Between his cornucopia of talents and his humanitarian work with UNICEF, Danny was The Man, and I'm so glad you and so many others love him, too. Let the Kaye Revolution commence! :-D

  3. This sounds like a lot of fun! Danny Kaye is worth his weight in gold, but Vera-Ellen is too. Glad to hear this was nominated for some Oscars - it's such a bore when some years it seems only the dull, heavy, political movies are nominated. Great post, Dorian. I think you're my fave photo-caption writer.

    1. Aww... *blush!* Ruth, I'm flattered and honored at your kind words about being your "favorite photo-caption writer." Many thanks, my friend! :-D I quite agree that Vera-Ellen is wonderful; in addition to WM, I also love her in ON THE TOWN, among others! And like you, I love it when fun, upbeat movies get Oscar nominations, too; why should gloom-and-doom movies get all the awards? Thanks again!

  4. This has to be my fav Danny Kaye movie too. I love the opera number at the end, whenever we watch "Wonder Man" in my family we can't resist rewinding and watching that seen over again. Priceless!

    1. Alyssa, I'm delighted to see that you and your family adore Danny Kaye, too! The whole movie is great, of course, but like you, our family totally cracks up during the climactic opera scene. Just thinking of the line "Choo-Choo Laverne is Minnie Smith!" always gets me giggling! Thanks for dropping by to chat about WONDER MAN!

  5. Oh Dorian, you are remarkable. I had TOTALLY forgotten this movie. I mean, TOTALLY! My brain has been on vacation.

    How could I have forgotten WONDER MAN???? I LOVE Danny Kaye.
    I am on the verge of plunking down some cold hard cash for a copy of THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY which I simply must have. I am being overcome....!!!

    Anyway I loved reading your post on Danny and this movie. You and I are in league as co-Prezzies of the Danny Kaye Fan Club. For sure!

    Thanks goodness he had Sylvia to spur him on with her genius. Genius plus genius = Danny Kaye!

    By the way,I understand that Steve Cochran was, in reality, also not a very nice guy. But maybe that's just Hollywood gossip.

    1. HOORAY, Yvette, you're here! I knew you loved Danny Kaye as much as I do, and I've been keeping the proverbial light in the window for you so you can join the WONDER MAN chat, fun, and frolic! You can be my co-Prezzie of the Danny Kaye Fan Club anytime! And boy, did the stars align to bring Danny and the marvelous Sylvia Fine together as husband and wife and fabulous-all-around writers and entertainers, or what? It's kismet, I tell you! :-D

      I'll admit I only know Steve Cochran from his bad-guy roles in WM, WHITE HEAT, and other tough-guy roles, so I can't be sure whether he was a crumb or a decent joe in real life - but boy, he sure was a convincing SOB onscreen!

      They say there will be more Danny Kaye movies coming out on DVD/Blu-Ray over the course of the year, so cross your fingers, say a prayer, enact the good-luck ritual of your choice! :-D In the meantime, my friend, all of us here at Team Bartilucci HQ wish a very Happy Valentine's Day to you and your adorable granddaughter and all you care about!

  6. I've never seen Wonder Man, Dorian, but just seeing Danny in his Bali costume is enough to make me want to! Vera Ellen looks like a baby in this -- you forget how the stars look when they were so young. I am also a huge fan of Cuddles Sakall and Steve Cochran (one sweet and one gorgeous!) The movie sounds like a lot of fun, and I love: "This isn’t Hamlet, you know!" It doesn't have to be! Fun is great! Wonderful review, Dorian!

    1. Beaucoup thanks for your enthusiastic praise of my WONDER MAN post, Becky; you're started my holiday weekend off right! :-D Can't go wrong with WM, with its wonderful songs, side-splitting comedy, and that perfect cast of zanies and beauties! I hope you'll catch up with WM if you haven't already, Becks; I just know you're gonna love it! Have a wonderful Presidents Day weekend, Big Sis!

  7. I fell in love with Virginia Mayo in the kitchen date scene - 'The honey, please'...those long blonde trsses and never has a woman looked more mesmerising in a frilly apron.

  8. I'm even prepared to overlook the fact that Virginia negligently burns her souffle due to incessant flirting with Danny Kaye in the kitchen - she runs her fingers through his hair, purrs his name Edwin, invades his body space so that the oversized frill from her apron practically touches his face and confusingly uses the phrase 'Honey' which he mistakes for a term of endearment. The poor man doesn't stand a chance against the charms of the blonde-tressed beauty!

  9. Marcus, we of Team Bartilucci have made our day with your glowing post about WONDER MAN! We love Danny and Virginia and all of the great cast, including "Cuddles" Thanks a million!

  10. Virginia looks so charming in that scene..despite taking her eye off the souffle!