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Thursday, December 19, 2013

'Danny Kaye Double Feature' DVD: Two Classics Round Off Reviews of 'Danny Kaye Centennial' Titles

Danny Kaye Double Feature
This review of Warner Archive's recent DVD release of "Danny Kaye Double Feature" rounds out the series of posts, that began with discussing the four-disc "Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years" release, on titles associated with "The Danny Kaye Centennial." This celebration marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of a genuine screen legend.

Seeing Kaye express every emotion from sheer panic to heartfelt passion, skillfully undergo rapid costume and accompanying character changes, and perform song-and-dance numbers that involve lightning-fast transformations from operatic baritones to rapid-fire falsetto lyrics in every movie makes every Kaye film in any format a bargain.

Including Kaye's arguably best-known film 1955's "The Court Jester" makes "Double" a great release on which to end this series on his uber-awesome movies. The other film is the much different, but equally good, biopic "The Five Pennies" from 1959.

"Jester" is set in medieval times and has Kaye playing circus performer Hubert Hawkins, who has joined the band of Robin Hoodesque the Black Fox. These merry men and women are dedicated to ousting the current king of England, who has wrongfully seized control by having every known rightful heir to the throne killed.

In typical Kaye fashion, Hawkins longs for bigger and better things than being a low-level lackey; the element of a proverbially fateful encounter that gives Hawkins a chance to be a hero is an equally prevalent theme in these offerings.

In this case, Hawkins seizing an opportunity to impersonate the titular comedian to gain access to the castle as part of a larger scheme to overthrow the king sets the primary action in motion. The interval between Hawkins arriving at the castle and the inevitable happy ending has enough sword fights, hilarious wordplay, murders, and elaborate song-and-dance numbers to hold the attention of even the worst sufferer of ADHD.

As Unreal TV's review of the Olive Films release of the Kaye film "Knock on Wood" mentions, this fractured fairy tale that precedes the equally hilarious "The Princess Bride" by roughly 30 years includes the "chalice with the palace" scene. Very few people could doubt that this is the most famous scene from any Kaye film; even fewer could deny that it is one of the funniest scenes from any film ever made.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube,  is of that classic scene.

Other notable elements of "Jester" includes the opening credits in which Kaye as the titular character sings about what the audience can expect in the film. He simultaneously seemingly manipulates the coming-and-going of the credits. The one "rogue" name is that of early big-screen Sherlock Holmes portrayor Basil Rathbone, who provides an Oscar-worthy performance as the slyly evil Ravenhurst.

The plethora of other notable casting choices in "Jester" include a very hubba hubba Angela Lansbury as Princess Gwendolyn, the equally famous and hubba hubba Glynis Johns as the brave and daring Maid Jean, and John Carradine as the jester who Hawkins impersonates.

A very clever song-and-dance number that has Hawkins portraying the Black Fox also makes "Jester" a "must-see" film. Stating that it is awesome on multiple large and not-so-large levels is hilarious to anyone who is familiar with this segment.

"Pennies" is radically different than "Jester" and is a moderate departure from most Kaye films. The primary common element is that Barbara Bel Geddes from the original "Dallas" plays Kaye's wife. Bel Geddes was an early choice to play Jessica Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote." Of course, Angela Lansbury of "Jester" took the role.

"Pennies" is an awesome biopic in which Kaye portrays the dramatic ups and downs in the musical career of bandleader and jazz musician Ernest Loring "Red" Nichols. The music business theme and plethora of appearances by musicians of the era, such as Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw, evoke thoughts of the film "A Song is Born" in which Kaye plays a musical historian. The "Goldwyn" release includes "Song."

With all due respect to Dorsey et al, Louis Armstrong provides the most memorable cameo of the music legends in the film; it seems clear that he as excited to perform with Kaye as Kaye is to play music with Armstrong. The mutual admiration is greatly deserved. Further, Kaye and Bob Hope have equal fun in a very short scene in what seems to be the Brown Derby restaurant.

The following clip, courtesy of YouTube, of Kaye and Armstrong performing "When the Saints Go Marching In" conveys the wonderful chemistry between those two greats.

Much of "Pennies" revolves around Nichols' marriage to Willa Stutsman and the raising of their daughter. Seeing the highly recognizable Bel Geddes bring the same compassion, kindness, and occasional fire to the role of Willa as she does to Eleanor Farnsworth Ewing Farlow, a.k.a. Miss Ellie, 20 years later is great fun. Further, who knew that J.R.'s mom could belt out a tune?

One scene in which Willa defends Red to his first boss Wil Paradise creates a strong image of Miss Ellie saying "Now listen here" Jock Ewing, J.R. Ewing, or Clayton Farlow.

Another bit of fun casting has future hubba hubba girl Tuesday Weld play the early teens version of Nichols' daughter Dorothy. Her star quality shines through in even that small role and likely led to casting her as the dreamy Thalia Menninger in the early '60s sitcom "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis."

Although "Pennies" has relatively little of the clowning and cowering of a Kaye comedy, it does an awesome job telling the story of a talented musician with admirably high professional standards, strong devotion to his family, and a willingness to sacrifice his fame if necessary.

On a final note, writing about nine of Kaye's best films in this series of reviews has felt like a marathon. This effort has been worthwhile if it conveyed even a fraction of Kaye's genuinely unique talent and the great job that the producers, directors, writers, and co-stars who clearly "got" him helped bring out.

Anyone with questions about Kaye or any film mentioned in this review is welcome to email me. You can also find me on Twitter via @tvdvdguy.