05 February, 2014

Up In Arms

            He has three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  He won a Golden Globe.  He was at one time part-owner of The Seattle Mariners.  He was knighted by Queen Margrethe II of Denmark for portraying their treasured Hans Christian Anderson.  He was given Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur by France for his work with UNICEF.  And he was posthumously presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Mr. Ronald Reagan.  All this for a little song-and-dance man from Brooklyn.

            Danny Kaye – née Daniel David Kaminski – was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1911 (though he would say 1913).  One of three boys, he was the only one born in The United States.  He started at Public School 149 (now named after him) then moved to Thomas Jefferson High School, all the while entertaining classmates with songs and jokes.  Sadly, his mother passed when Kaye was barely a teen;  an impressionable loss for him.
He and a friend ran away to Florida, where he sang and the friend played guitar.  They made an okay living for a bit, but it was no break.  When they returned to New York, Kaye’s father didn’t make him return to school or work, but supported his “going it on his own.”  And so Kaye did.  After a slew of odd jobs – get this spread:  a soda jerk, insurance investigator, office clerk and dental assistant – Kaye felt the lure back to showbusiness.  And so he spent most of his teenage years as a tummler at The White Roe Resort in The Catskills.
            His first break was in 1933 when he joined the vaudeville act The Three Terpsichoreans.  They made their way to Utica, New York and -- changing his name for the marquee -- Danny Kaye was born.  The act was successful enough to tour The United States, and even Asia and Japan.  While in Japan, a typhoon hit, knocking out power in the hotel.  The audience was restless and nervous.  To calm them, Kaye went onstage, holding a flashlight to his face, and sang every song he could remember as loudly as possible.  Entertaining an audience who didn’t speak English inspired him to the pantomime, gestures and facial expressions that would eventually make his reputation.  Yep, Danny Kaye had arrived.
            He made his film debut in a 1935 comedy short, Moon Over Manhattan.  He also continued performances at The Catskills (as Danny Koblin) and made a series of New York-based two-reelers (with June Allyson and Imogene Coca).  These carried him slooooowly upward, to a short-lived Broadway show, The Straw Hat Revue.  But more significant than his being on Broadway was meeting the young lady who wrote the Book & Lyric and played piano for that show:  his future bride, Miss Sylvia Fine.  Kaye scored further triumphs on the stage with Lady In The Dark and Let’s Face It.  And that’s when a funny thing happened on the way to the forum.  The phone rang.
           It was Hollywood.

            Up In Arms (1944)
            w Don Hartman, Allen Boretz & Robert Pirosh
                suggested by "The Nervous Wreck" by Owen Davis
            d Elliot Nugent

            Danny Weems (Kaye) works as an elevator operator in a New York Medical building, so he can be close to doctors and nurses and get free advice on his supposed illnesses.  “Supposed” because he’s a well known hypochondriac.  So when he’s drafted into The Army, he’s devastated.  His best friend Joe (Dana Andrews) enlists just to keep an eye on him.
            But his sicknesses aren’t his only devastation.  See, he’s in love with Mary Morgan (Constance Dowling).  Trick is, she’s in love with Joe.  Oh, and Mary’s friend Virginia (Dinah Shore)?  She’s in love with Danny.  (If there was only some way to work this out!)  Well, our boys get through basic training, and as they ship-off, find the girls on-board as well.  They’ve enlisted as nurses!  (Oh, but if there was only smooth sailing ahead …)
            When they land on a Pacific island, Danny is imprisoned for the “nurse shell game” he played on ship;  only to be “rescued” by a Japanese patrol.  They try to interrogate him, but our hero – impersonating their commander – bamboozles them.  He returns to the base with the entire enemy troop in-tow.  But what of our Shakespearean love-square?  Joe!  Mary!  Virginia!  Danny?  I think Samuel Goldwyn has it figured out.  Because, yep, Danny’s indeed our hero.

            In his original New York Times review (3 March, 1944), Bosley Crowther wrote, in part, “Possibly you’ve been hearing about a comic named Danny Kaye.  He's the one who’s been blowing the roofs off nightclubs and Broadway theatres for the past couple of years. Well, Samuel Goldwyn has arranged a conjunction of Mr. Kaye and the screen. It stands to reason that millions of persons are immediately imperiled thereby.  For every one of Mr. Kaye's perfections are generously repeated in his first film, Up in Arms, which came to The Music Hall yesterday.  Most of his classic comic routines are included.  And perhaps the most popular of his scat songs, "Melody in 4-F," is reloaded and fired.” 

[My note:  "Melody In 4-F" is from his previous Broadway hit Let’s Face It, written by his wife Sylvia Fine.  Okay, back to Mr. Crowther.]

“Mr. Kaye bangs his way through this story with a maximum of vitality.  He blusters, gawks, perspires, grimaces and throws himself into fits.  In addition to "Melody In 4-F," he sings another patter song;  in the lobby of the theatre for the movie they can’t get into, but who wants to?!  And he does one dandy jive number with Dinah Shore in "Tess’ Torch Song."  [And her] "Now I Know" is her best—and one of the year's better—songs.
            “Of course, Mr. Goldwyn has dressed his picture in bright Technicolored finery and has put aboard his troopship some Army nurses that would make malaria a rare privilege.  If the story were only better—Hey, what else do we want with Danny Kaye!”

            Well, I can’t tell him he’s wrong.  One, he liked it.  Two, he wrote, “If the story were only better – Hey, what else do we want from Danny Kaye!”  And in those two I think he’s dead-on.  It is a good movie.  And I say that somewhat specifically.  See, I often split “movies” and “films.”  For instance, I don’t know, top of my head here, Caddyshack I’d call a movie while Citizen Kane I’d call a film.  I love them both, but they’re both very different vehicles.  Our movie today?  While nominated for two Academy Awards (Music & Song), it’s definitely a “movie,” and it is good.  Second, and more significant, the story that Danny Kaye plays through.  Is it great?  Not really ... but it doesn’t need to be.  Sure, it’s been said that the movie shows signs of Post Production tampering (the Narration and abrupt Ending) and that Samuel Goldwyn wasn’t quite sure yet how to package Kaye for the screen.  (And fair enough again.  Remember, this was Kaye’s first Feature.  While he was a hit on-stage, how would movie audiences take to him?)  Well, Mr. Goldwyn knew the kind of movie he wanted.  More importantly, he was a smart enough Producer to let it be the kind of movie it needed to be. 
            Let me explain.
            Say you put Danny Kaye in A Streetcar Named Desire.  (Wait, come to think of it, that’d be worth a watch.)  But totally wrong for Mr. Kaye’s talents.  Likewise, seeing Mr. Brando in this, the same.  (Though that’d be worth a watch too.  Sorry, moving on.)  Mr. Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine knew how to write for his talents, and Mr. Goldwyn knew how to showcase them.  But as this was Kaye’s first feature, Goldwyn very intentionally played his hand safely.  How?  Showcase Kaye, and if story falls by the wayside, c'est la vie.  Now, let’s be clear here.  We’re talking Story, Overall Plot;  which, yes, isn’t mind-blowing here.  But let’s not take away from the clever patching our Screenwriters weaved:  Don Hartman, Allen Boretz & Robert Pirosh still had to string the thread for Danny to slide his pearls on.

            And patching it was.  It’s said Goldwyn had a habit of addressing his new star as “Eddie,” confusing Kaye with Eddie Cantor.  If true, it may be because Up In Arms was a (loose) remake of Cantor’s "Whoopee!" which was a (loose) interpretation of Owen Davis’ hit play, "The Nervous Wreck."  Okay, try and follow this.  Davis wrote the play in 1923, later made into the 1926 movie of the same name.  "Whoopee!" is staged on Broadway in 1928 (and later 1979) then our movie today premieres in 1944.  Oh and, remember, "Melody In 4-F" was pulled from "Let’s Face It."  Yes, I think the Writers’ Room of Hartman, Boretz & Pirosh did okay.  And, to note, there are even inside jokes referring the illogical nature of the plotline and such fluff as the out-of-nowhere appearances of The Goldwyn Girls (one of whom is Kaye's future leading lady Virginia Mayo). 

            And, to note, as I talked about “the new Bob Hope picture" being just that, Kaye falls into that as well.  (Most 40s stars did.  “It’s the new Bogart picture!”  “What’s it about?”  “It’s the new Bogart picture!”  “Oh okay, let’s go!”)  Kaye played a Magazine Editor, an Army Private, and, coming up in our Top 5, (in a dual role) a Bookworm and Nightclub Singer, a Court Jester and – wait for it – a Song-And-Dance Man.  Yes, note a couple of those.  Much like in most of Hope’s films he played an entertainer of sorts -- Radio Personality, Vaudeville Ham, anything that yielded his character capable of those quip-funny lines -- they found the same “excuse” for Mr. Kaye.  So, yes, in the storyline, he'd play a Nightclub Entertainer or Song-And-Dance Man.  And the audiences loved it.

            As long as we’re talking Story, I’ll talk a little Behind The Scenes.  (I know you’ve been waiting for this.)  We touched a little on it already, Up In Arms starting as Owen Davis’ play but, to note, Mr. Davis, no slouch, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama ("Icebound," 1923).  Our first Screenwriter, Don Hartman, was showcased in the Hope Top 5, as he wrote Nothing But The Truth.  And he’ll pop up again in this Top 5 when we get to Kaye’s oft-missed but well-worth-the-watch Wonder Man.  Allen Boretz only started his career with The Marx Brothers and – along with Don Hartman – would do Hope’s Princess And The Pirate.  Robert Pirosh also started off with The Marx Brothers and did an uncredited rewrite on … what’s it called, the thing with the tornado … oh yes, The Wizard Of Oz.  A smart man, when Television came around, he went there and made a lucrative living with Bonanza, Mannix, Barnaby Jones and Hawaii Five-O.  And our Director?  Between 1932 and 1952, Elliott Nugent made 31 films (some of Hope’s best) but he was also an Actor, and, eventually, went back there.  Between 1925 and 1958 – while Directing, mind you – he Acted in 24 films and, eventually, TV shows.

            Up In Arms isn't just the cinematic breakout for Danny Kaye -- and I didn't just pick it because it's his first film -- it holds up as a genuine slice of his work.  When he "arrived" in 1944 he was something wholly new, wholly original, and embraced the one thing all comics must embrace:  zero fear.  He was talented, sure, but his commitment to "the wacky" skyrocketed that talent.  Molded by his wife, vaulted by her own talent, Kaye became king of the living room -- the three ring circus we'd all want it to be.  Up In Arms isn't his best, but, for his first, he couldn't have done much better.

            If I may, a quick moment on Miss Sylvia Fine.  Probably best known for being Mrs. Danny Kaye, it must be noted how great a writer she was.  Sure, Kaye performed those incredible tongue-twisting side-splitting explosions;  well, she came up with them.  The Disney Hall exhibit curator Daniel Walshaw -- who showcased a centennial exhibit in 2013 (remember, Kaye oft said he was born 1913) -- wrote, "[Kaye and Fine] met in the late 1930s and she recognized the talent he had … [But] he was a bit scattered and he threw himself into all sorts of styles.  She helped focus him.  She wrote specialty songs that were specific to his vocal and physical talents.  She helped him define the character of Danny Kaye and every aspect of his career."  And Susan King for The L.A. Times wrote, “One of [Kaye’s] most popular songs was Fine's "Anatole of Paris," which Kaye first performed in 1939 at the Pennsylvania summer resort Camp Tamiment and eight years later in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty.”  Winner of The Peabody and nominated for two Oscars and two Emmys, she “retired” to teaching musical comedy at the University of Southern California and Yale.  Miss Fine herself once said of her husband, “I can't say what Danny’s like in private life.  There are too many of them.”

            Up next?  That oft-missed dual-role:  Wonder Man.

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