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Monday, April 12, 2010

Comedies With Money

The Danny Kaye features for Samuel Goldwyn were comedies with money, just as Eddie Cantor's had been during the thirties. You look at them today and imagine how W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, or Abbott and Costello might have fared with such enormous resource at their disposal. Kaye rollicked in a technicolor garden to their black-and-white tenements. One reason I think folks resent this comedian is doubt (no, conviction) that he wasn’t worthy of such expenditure. Few clowns date so woefully as Danny Kaye. Many wonder why anyone ever laughed at him. These Goldwyn-aramas are so bloated, so extravagant for the sake of showing off, as to convince us that 40’s patrons maintained a whole different standard with regard screen humor. And yet they also liked much of what we still enjoy. Was it the novelty of Kaye’s act? If so, that was a long time wearing off. He had starring parts from 1944 into the sixties (and did give us The Court Jester). His initial brace for Goldwyn were one and all events. None placed below top of the bill. By The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, there’d been three, pretty much an annual laugh and music feed. 1947 offered comedies and then it offered super comedies. Walter Mitty and Paramount’s Hope/Crosby The Road To Rio were for families wanting more than their money’s worth out of a merry movie night. As opposed to lame-o mix-ups with Claudette Colbert or Deanna Durbin getting caught in some guy’s pajamas, these were three-ring howlers for everybody. Never mind what we prefer now, Kaye appealed to a broader base at his peak than any other comic before cameras. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty saw no shame in turning him loose upon audiences for an unapologetic two hours, much of that surrendered to gags done time and again to exhausting effect.

Goldwyn bought the James Thurber short story and committed to making it long. Sophisticates liked this author and were confident he’d be bastardized. Goldwyn thought little enough of the property to initially call his adaptation I Wake Up Dreaming, but restored Thurber’s title in the face of extravagant press covering the shoot. Thurber was consulted in time-honored fashion, then ignored. He'd regale New York Times readers (many fans there) with accounts of Hollywood moguls and their wives mucking around with his story. Turns out there was a Walter Mitty organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of their revered character, so that got coverage too. This was interest building a year in advance of the film’s opening. Few comedies merited such scrutiny. What Goldwyn kept of Thurber were daydreams increased in number from four in the story to a half-dozen for the movie, to which was added a scripter's own daydream wherein Mitty mans up, routs baddies, and wins Virginia Mayo (lacquered and white-gloved to near-statuary appearance) . Boxoffice receipts vindicated Goldwyn's rape of Thurber's art. The author may have had his niche readership, but their combined number couldn't muster $5.4 million in worldwide rentals such as SG's free-wheeled picturization did. The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty revolved but incidentally around that title character, its greater resources put to the disposal of Danny Kaye's manic persona. He trips, mugs, and patters as before. Audiences expected no less than multiple encoring for staccato lyrics wife Sylvia Fine penned for each Kaye feature, and what matter if they mis-fitted his Walter Mitty? A technicolored fashion show dawdles in recognition of then-customers' willingness to gaze upon Goldwyn Girls decked in latest 1947 creations. There's extensive second-unit glimpsing of story-set Manhattan, richly lensed to the advantage of gleaming Yellow Cabs and pristine skyscrapers. You can call The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty plodding and witless, but it is sure enough eye candy for those who'd call that enough, which in 1947, was most everyone who attended.

A singular fan-discovery recently brought The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty out of changing tastes' coma, that being indication that among deleted dream sequences was one featuring Boris Karloff reprising his Frankenstein monster act. Shock waves ensued when several E-Bay listings revealed hitherto unknown production stills with legendary make-up artist Jack Pierce applying scars and bolts to the Karloff countenance for the first time since Son Of Frankenstein (there was a baseball charity event in the interim with BK back in harness, but that was a one-night appearance). Members of The Classic Horror Film Board pounced on this revelation and spent numerous posts speculating on hows and whys of such a remarkable (and belated) curtain call. Goldwyn secured permission from Universal to display the protected image. Proof of that turned up in a separate online auction. Forum sleuthers assembled clues over months and realized that The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty was indeed the film for which Karloff again donned his immortal guise, but a question remained ... was there actually footage shot with him as Frankenstein's creation? Ace historian Ted Newsom argued a persuasive yes. Scott MacQueen suspects BK's rather perfunctory entrance into the narrative as it now stands is explained by the fact his monster appearance was excised. There's frankly so little of Karloff in the film as to make me wonder if indeed he wasn't prominent in at least one sequence eventually dropped (after all, he's third billed). The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty makes hash of menacing opportunity with heaped villainy that should have been merged into Karloff's character. His role seems truncated and unsatisfactory throughout. Was this result of eleventh-hour surgery to cover exclusion of the Frankenstein dream? There was one other dropped fantasy we know about in which Danny Kaye assumed the role of Irish rebel (and appears, at least by stills like one above, to have played that largely straight). In all the Mitty pre-release press I looked at, there was no mention of a Karloff/Frankenstein cameo, so debate continues as to how much, if anything, was actually committed to film. Discovery of such footage would naturally send currents through fandom the equal of those that first brought the monster to life.

Many Thanks to Scott MacQueen for Info and Images on Boris Karloff's participation in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.


Blogger Axe said...

The primary reason I watch most of the Danny Kaye films is Virginia Mayo :-)

11:11 AM  
Blogger Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I couldn’t help it. I just had to give you this award:

Keep up the good work!

P.S. The George/Gracie/Basil header is fantastic!

12:41 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Ivan, I am honored, having been a fan and reader of your site, "Thrilling Days Of Yesteryear," since its beginning. You always seem to be first with news about DVD releases of classic TV, and your writing is always informative and entertaining. Thanks again for picking Greenbriar.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Old Bob said...

I have to agree with Axe. Danny wears a bit thin, but Virginia Mayo is always worth watching. And the Goldwyn Girls are always worth a look, too!

8:15 PM  
Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

I agree with you all the way about Kaye.

But MAN wouldn't that Karloff piece be GREAT to see!

10:27 PM  
Blogger JAMES said...

I was going to movies in the 1940s and 1950s and usually avoided any featuring Danny Kaye. His comedy was a bit too broad for me. I did enjoy WHITE CHRISTMAS and THE FIVE PENNIES, which were not his typical fare. My favorite movie comedy of the 1940s was HOLD THAT GHOST with Abbott and Costello. They were not quite so crazy or rude to each other in this one and it also had Joan Davis. But then I was a kid back then. I left any interest in slapstick of any sort behind as I grew into my teens and learned to appreciate clever dialogue. Eve Arden's wise cracks can still break me up.

11:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another fantastic entry, John. Your writing continues to thrill. And once again, your point of view matches my own thinking in regards to Mr. Kaye. At a very early age, I found Danny Kaye insufferable. He always seems to be a little bit too thrilled with himself. Saw a few of his films, and never liked a single one. Then actively avoided him.

Now, every time I see even a few minutes of "White Christmas," I wonder how in heck they didn't sign up Bob Hope for that Danny Kaye role. Hope and Crosby, Christmas, how could they go wrong? If they had co-starred Hope, that movie might be an evergreen and not just an endurance test.


Tom Ruegger

4:29 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Always welcome correspondent Donald Benson weighs in on Danny Kaye:

Danny Kaye was packaged as a song & dance man AND a clown, so nearly all his vehicles tried to be equally musical and comedy, usually coming in at half-strength on both. Kelly and Astaire could be funny between songs, Hope could toss off a nice number between one-liners, and even Oliver Hardy could serve up an appealing vocal when not dealing with Stan, but their emphasis was clearly one or the other.

While Kaye kept up the event pictures longer than most, he wasn't certainly alone. Abbott and Costello only got color on a couple of late films, but some of their early features were also comparatively lavish with musical numbers, guest acts and effects gags. As time went on, the films were stripped down to bridging scenes between A&C bits, a vestige of a romantic subplot, and stooge-level violent slapstick.

Bob Hope's thrillers and costume pictures used lavish productions purely as setups for throwaway quips. Red Skelton's films weren't that big, but they weren't cheapies, either -- Southern Yankee had at least one non-stock battle and Excuse My Dust was a respectable period piece. Martin and Lewis also had an expensive look after graduating from My Friend Irma, and some of Jer's solo pics were absurdly extravagant.

Recently saw Merry Andrew, which I think was one of the last of Kaye's epics. As always, Kaye sings, dances and clowns (literally this time) almost nonstop. It felt a bit different -- They seemed to be going for a "modern" musical, with a focused (if predictable) plot and real exteriors instead of obvious soundstages and backlots. Dated, but you had to appreciate the professionalism.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I can handle Danny Kaye in WHITE CHRISTMAS, but that's about it.

Never got through an entire episode of his CBS variety series either.

Still, great article.

8:38 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Count me in as one of those who never found Danny Kaye funny, even when I was a kid and would respond to almost anyone pulling a wacky doubletake. There was something about his "nice" persona that, even to an eight year old, seemed phony to the core; in fact, he struck me as somewhat angry and bitter everytime I saw him, especially on TV appearances.

8:44 AM  
Blogger Shawn Dickinson said...

I just discovered your blog for the first time and spent the entire morning scrolling through it. This site is pure gold!

12:50 PM  
Blogger VP81955 said...

I suppose Danny Kaye is the male equivalent of Betty Hutton -- quintessentially forties, someone whose work (and energy) doesn't translate well to today's audiences. But Betty at least will long be remembered for "THe Miracle Of Morgan's Creek," and Kaye for "The Court Jester." (Danny's work probably played better on stage than on screen.)

Oh, and Thurber fans might want to watch Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" every Friday. He is now reading selections from Thurber to close the week, a pleasant way to enter the weekend.

P.S. Love the Carole-and-cat header.

6:58 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

Oh my goodness - I never knew about Karloff donning the Frankenstein makeup for this Danny Kaye epic! Thanks to you, John as well as Mr. Newsom and Mr. McQueen, I now have a terrific extra tidbit to include in my Scared Silly blog/book on classic horror-comedies. In fact, I may very well have to link to your entries.

The implications are particularly staggering when you realize that "Mitty" was 1947 - a year before Glenn Strange donned the neck bolts to meet Abbott & Costello! There is already such a great backstory on that film - to the point where there are even semi-conflicting accounts floating around - that adding this Karloff-meets-Kaye info only enhances the lore.

It also underscores that Karloff could be quite cool indeed - contrary to the reports that he became anti-Monster (or at least reluctant to relive it) after the third Frankie film. And he already proved that he had a good sense of humor when he played the monster in a cameo in Olsen & Johnson's madcap "Hellzapoppin."

Anyway... thanks again!!!

8:35 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I seldom missed Danny Kaye's TV variety show ("Welcome to Talent Playhouse. I'm your host, Noel Talent..."), but I must admit, Kevin K.'s point about anger and bitterness is well-taken and perceptive. In A Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson's comments soften from one edition (" could this wildly uneasy show-off have been so popular?") to the next (" of those people who was a wonder once, but who looks frantic and alien now."), but that first-edition question still hangs there. Will people 50 years from now be similarly scratching their heads over Robin Williams?

I had a college professor in the '60s who idolized Kaye, having been a teenager in the '40s; maybe that was what it took. He saw Kaye first and foremost as a clown, one who sang and danced, sorta, now and then. I expect that's how Sam Goldwyn also saw Kaye, as the new Eddie Cantor -- because that's exactly how he showcased and sold him.

9:08 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

The Court Jester for Paramount is good..and The Inspector General for Warners drew some genuine belly laughs out of me..and I enjoy White Christmas and Hans Christian Andersen..but those big MGM color gang bangs are a real chore to watch! ugh!

10:34 PM  
Anonymous joe dante said...

When I was a kid KNOCK ON WOOD was very funny, but I haven't seen it since. Kaye is an acquired taste which I don't think I've ever really acquired, but THE COURT JESTER stands as some kind of '50s masterwork, with one of the funniest and smartest screenplays of the period, and Kaye is great in it.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Wow, a whole lot of Kaye bashing goin' on! The late great William K. Everson suggested Kaye was at his best in the Goldwyn pictures because he was breaking rules (lack of taste? lack of restraint?) before he knew there were rules. A lot of other folks just wrap Kaye up with Betty Hutton, Preston Sturges and Spike Jones as a kind of loud-noisy-over-the-top-equals-funny-1940's-sort-of-thing. Personally, I'm rather fond of Danny's early movies (particularly WONDER MAN), although I think it's two of his later entries, KNOCK ON WOOD and THE COURT JESTER that validate his status as a major screen clown. But, then again, I've always been a sucker for badly dated but once popular movie comics of the "what were they thinking back then?" school (Eddie Cantor, Joe E. Brown, Joan Davis, the Ritz Brothers et. al.)

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Regarding Jim Lane's comment: I've been scratching my head over Robin Williams for about 20 years.

1:41 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

According to Garson Kanin, during Kaye's entire tenure at Goldwyn, Sam, true to form, called him "Eddie".

My father, who was about as much of a Danny Kaye fan as Iam a nuclear scientist, would carefully scrutinize the "production numbers" on either "The Kid From Brooklyn" or "Up In Arms" whenever it was on. He was dating one of The Goldwyn Girls at that time named Martha Montgomery and would be looking for her. Dad told me that Martha took him to a "wrap party" at Danny and Sylvia Kayes' house and Kaye was "on" all the time, something Dad did not find amusing.


2:04 AM  
Blogger Unca Jeffy said...

The bitter comment strikes a chord. I once heard George Carlin say he had idolized Kaye as a child and one day went to get his autograph (well before George was well known, I understood it to be when he was an adolescent). He commented he was completely disollusioned at meeting Kaye, who acted bruskely and dismissively toward him. I don't remember all the details so I won't hyperbolize...if any one else recalls this story, refresh us please. This could be the longest blog comment thread EVER! :)

P.S. I too love "The Five Pennies" though I'm sure Satchmo and the music sell it for me more than Kaye does.

7:11 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jeff, I'd heard often that Danny Kaye was not a nice guy offscreen. Could this be part of the reason he's not so well regarded today?

Interesting about Kaye always being "on", RJ. Somehow he seemed like the type who would be.

Dave K, there is something appealing about badly dated comics and their comedies. And I kinda like Betty Hutton, by the way.

Joe, "The Court Jester" is one of my favorite 50's features. Wish Paramount would issue it on Blu-Ray, but what are chances of that?

Jim, I wouldn't be surprised that those who idolized Danny Kaye in the 40's still do. It's a little like fans who grew up seeing Martin and Lewis first run.

Paul, your "Scared Silly" blog is a pip. Really enjoy your writings there.

Shawn, I'm so glad you've found Greenbriar and I thank you for the kind words. By all means, consult the Search Archive for easy access to prior posts, plus name and title index.

8:07 AM  
Anonymous Earl B said...

I also remember the George Carlin story (speaking of which, I was surprised over the years at how many entertainers around George's age all said they got into show business because they "wanted to be Danny Kaye"). Anyway, as the story goes, young George met his idol coming out of a theater, who refused an autograph ("I don't do that") and walked right by him. Poor kid.

8:17 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I didn't realize that so many people HATED Danny Kaye!!

I thought he was hysterical!! Granted, I haven't seen ALL his films, but I still think that, pound-for-pound "The Court Jester" is one of the funniest movies ever made. It still holds up today and the gags are still hilarious. How many "contemporary" comedies are going to be able to say that in 50 years?


8:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Castiglia: Karloff is not in Hellzapoppin. The Monster was played by Dale Van Sickle.

It's a shame that the Karloff monster footage has not survived.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Ted Newsom said...

I'm an Ace! John called me an Ace!!!

"Anonymous" already nailed the error about Karloff being in Hellzapoppin' (note to Paul Castaglia-- if you're really writing a book about spooky comedies, better get the Monster parts right. The mob will tear you apart if you don't.)

I noticed that THIRD photo from the session showed up, with just Pierce and Karloff. Since only one of these photos was known to exist 10 years ago (and then, misidentified as from the 1940 baseball game), I figure it's only a matter of time before someone finds the excised footage too.

(Which will of course throw dvd/bluray salesmen into a Kaye-pushing tizzy, since this sole Danny Kaye movie will sell a huge number, prompting them to think there's a market for all of 'em. Hah. Not without Boris Karloff, there isn't.)

1:22 AM  
Blogger David Simmons said...

As good as THE COURT JESTER is, I think it would have been better with Bob Hope.

12:42 PM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

I'm not surprised to hear people suggesting Kaye was insufferable
offscreen. I certainly found him that way onscreen. And that includes "The Court Jester". Heresy, I know. But It's always struck me as laboured and silly and definitely not funny. The only Kaye movie I ever enjoyed - and probably his least typical - was "Hans Christian Andersen". Kaye had his persona blessedly dialled down here. Plus of course, he had Frank Loesser's wonderful score to work with - brimming with some of the best songs ever written for the screen

1:24 PM  

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