15 February, 2014

Wonder Man

         Aaaaand we’re back. 

            It’s 1945.  World War II is coming to an end.  By June, when today’s film is released, The Yalta Conference between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt has been held (discussing Europe's post-war reorganization, but eventually divided by the eminent Cold War);  and Roosevelt dies, replaced by Harry Truman.  Adolph Hitler commits suicide and V-E Day (Victory in Europe) is declared.  Though it would be months before the Atomic Bombs are dropped on Japan – all but declaring V-J Day (Victory in Japan;  and it’s this day that sparked that famous photo of the sailor kissing his girl in Times Square) – by the end of the year, one of the bloodiest battles in the world would finally be over, and people could breathe again.
            Why the brief history reminder?  Because, remember class, timing greatly affects art.  As I wrote in the Bob Hope Top 5, the Road To Utopia release was pushed two years.  Possibly because of Crosby’s Going My Way but, more probably, because the studios wanted to get out their lineup of war-related movies.  With the war coming to an end, they needed to get those out first.  A comedy could wait.  (The same can be said for the re-work-on and pushed release of the Bogart-Bacall classic The Big Sleep.)  So the next Danny Kaye film?  It’s no surprise that there’s no war in it, and that it’s perhaps the wackiest of the Kaye oeuvre.  After the huge success of his first feature, audiences were ready to inhale as much Kaye as they could get.  And by mid-1945, the dark cloud of The War slowly dissipating, Samuel Goldwyn knew it was time to give it to them. 

So far in this Top 5 Retrospective of Danny Kaye, we have The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and Up In Arms.  Now, ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your pint of Prospect Park and get ready for:

Wonder Man (1945)
            w Don Hartman & Melville Shavelson and Philip Rapp
                adapted by Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran
                from an Original Story by Arthur Sheekman
            d Bruce Humberstone

            Danny Kaye indeed plays a dual role here, that of estranged twin brothers.  One is Buster Dingle, better known as “Buzzy Bellew,” the goofy headliner at The Pelican Club, a classy hotspot.  The other is Edwin Dingle, Buster’s polar opposite, a quiet genius whose world is his library.

Well, Buster becomes witness to a mob murder by "Ten Grand" Jackson (Steve Cochran in his film debut) and Buster's promptly murdered himself.  He comes back as a ghost, calling on his long-lost brother to help bring “Ten Grand” to justice.  As a result, the shy Edwin must take Buster's place until after his testimony is given.

But!  Edwin now has to balance his once quiet world with being thrown into his brother’s over-the-top one.  There’s needing to perform at the club – after all, the bad guys need to still think Buster's alive – but then there’s Madge (Vera-Ellen in her film debut) who’s dating Buster, and Ellen (Virginia Mayo) who we want to date Edwin.  Not to mention “Ten Grand’s” boys who can’t understand how Buster could still be alive, when they dumped him in the lake!  Guess they better finish the job.

In the end, Edwin fights his way to The Opera where the District Attorney is.  Of course, the only safe place for him is on stage, where he has to “perform” the testimony (one of the better numbers in the picture).  All’s well that ends well – for Buster and Edwin – and we wholly believe our heroes live happily ever after.  Ellen:  “Will we ever really be free of Buster?”  Edwin:  “I guess there will always be a little Buster inside of me.”  And that’s just fine with us all.

              In his original New York Times Review (9 June, 1945), Bosley Crowther wrote, in part:

“Danny Kaye and Samuel Goldwyn are not to be mistaken for a shrinking violet.  And so, when the public shouted "Bravo!" at Mr. Kaye's first starring film, Up in Arms, it was rather to be expected that he—and Mr. Goldwyn—would be back. That Kaye is—and now he's brought along his brother—in Mr. Goldwyn's latest picture, Wonder Man.

Mr. Goldwyn has concocted a wholesale, complete and exhaustive demonstration of Mr. Kaye.  There is Mr. Kaye playing a flamboyant and erratic entertainer in a nightclub and also playing his twin brother;  a solemn, bespectacled bookworm.  There is Mr. Kaye 1 getting bumped off by some underworld characters, and there is Mr. Kaye 2 being haunted by his brother's frolicsome ghost.  There is Mr. Kaye 2 trying desperately to fill his dead brother's shoes while the latter, as an ectoplasmic prompter, kids around gleefully.  And finally there is Mr. Kaye (both of him) running joyfully away with the show.

The tremendously talented [Kaye] manages to give an exhibition of most everything he can do.  And all of it is amusing.  He chatters and cracks jokes winningly, races about in mad confusion and sings songs like something quite mad.  Best of his acrobatic song-fests are a take-off of an asthmatic gent trying to sing "Otchi Tchorniya" and a wild end-performance at The Opera.

There are stretches of tedium in the middle (Mr. Kaye's writers nodded now and then).  But the idea is right for this rare cut-up and he whirls it around both of his heads.”
A couple of things of interest here.  One – much like his Up In Arms review – he liked it, but also found the story a little “eh.”  Two, he makes specific mention of the two Mr. Kayes, which would weave in and out of the entertainer’s life for much of the rest of his career.  In this, he plays two roles, in Mitty he daydreams himself as several, and in Court Jester he’s magically switched from goofy to gallant with but a snap of a finger (a very funny running sequence;  and we’ll get there in that review).

            The story thing I get.  I brought up the same conundrum in my Up In Arms Write Up and I think it holds here as well (demurring Story for showcasing Mr. Kaye).  I also think it stands next to what I said about when things are released.  As much as the studios wanted to get their backlog of war-related movies out, I think Mr. Goldwyn wanted to get this non war-related movie out and, perhaps, again, it was more significant – timely? – to showcasing why the audience wanted to be there:  the take-me-away-from-it-all silliness of Danny Kaye.
            And I do, as well, stand by this being the wackiest of his movies, certainly his early work.  (Though Kaye would always be on the silly side, including a wonderful turn as a Dentist in a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show.  Watch there as the consummate professional still hits it out of the park.  And watch Bill Cosby – no slouch himself – who can’t help – even as the cameras roll – marvel at the man.  But I digress.)  Some of the moments in our movie today border a little too wacky, for me anyway.  I love the first time the two brothers meet in the park – and there’s some amazing visual effect work there, which we’ll touch-on in a bit – but by the time he gets to swinging in the tree to “Rock A Bye Birdie,” it borders too much.  Likewise, when he’s on the phone with Ellen and pretends to be in a pet shop.  Too much?  Well, to each his own.

I don’t want to belabor Story here more than we already have.  Is it good?  Does it work?  Does it work as a Danny Kaye vehicle?  Overall, yes.  But one plot point I do love and want to bring up is the moment we meet Buster as he comes in to the nightclub.  He immediately puts on a silly act – that’s who he is – but what’s so great about it is everyone’s accustomed to how wacky he is, so no one thinks much of it.  So when Edwin has to pretend to be him later, and is so far out of his element but trying his best, floundering at being the suave entertainer, again, everyone just thinks it’s "Buster being Buster."  (And, again, how great Mr. Kaye is bouncing between the two brothers.)

What else?  

How about --  boy did I have a crush on her growing up -- Miss Virginia Mayo.  Interestingly, she started as A Goldwyn Girl (you can see her -- uncredited -- in Up In Arms) and would star alongside Kaye in Wonder Man and The Secret Life Of Secret Mitty and A Song Is Born.  But she was a hell of an actress -- a hell of a dame -- in her own right.  If you haven't seen her dramatic work -- White Heat with James Cagney, Captain Horatio Hornblower with Gregory Peck, The Best Years Of Our Lives with Dana Andrews et al and she was Paul Newman's first leading lady in The Silver Chalice -- please do yourself a favor and look 'em up.  (On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting her at the 1993 Lone Pine Film Festival -- she shot Along The Great Divide there with Kirk Douglas -- and of course I had to bring up my favorites.  She was surprised this eighteen year old kid had even heard of them!  I said I loved them.  And she smiled.)  

And we must touch on those amazing visual effects.  First and foremost, with as comfortable as we the audience have become in this department, please keep in mind we’re watching effects done in 1945.  Are they “perfect?”  (That is, as seamless as we’re accustomed to today?)  No.  But it was seventy years ago.  [For that matter, rewatch King Kong (1933).  That was only eighty years ago.  And if you’re not appropriately impressed, well …]  Sure, there’s the easy(ier) stuff like his standing in the middle of the cement in the park or the “lean overs,” but take a special look at the scene where Buster – by this time a ghost, remember – is sitting at the bar trying to pickup the glass and his hands go right through it.  And we see his hands go right through it.  Not just a wipe, it was matted.  No wonder the film – yep – won The Academy Award.

And our Supporting players.  First there’s Vera-Ellen (again, in her film debut).  She was only twenty-four when Mr. Goldwyn plucked her off a Broadway stage for Wonder Man.  Over the next twenty-five years she’d dance with Gene Kelly (On The Town and please see their “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” in Words And Music), Fred Astaire (Three Little Words and The Belle Of New York) and Donald O’Connor (Call Me Madam).  And she’d reunite with Kaye in perhaps her most famous role in White Christmas.  Then there’s the always great S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the Deli Owner.  Probably best known for Casablanca -- though he’s already popped up in this blog as he appears in Errol Flynn’s San Antonio -- it’s his great role in our film today that gives us the very funny “pint of Prospect Park” bit;  and I’ll leave discovering that gem up to you.  Then there’s our District Attorney, played by Otto Kruger.  For you Noir fans out there, yep, that’s Jules Amthor from Murder My Sweet.  As the Assistant District Attorney?  Richard Lane.  Yep, for you Boston Blackie fans, that's Inspector Farraday.  The sailor in the park?  That’s Huntz Hall, one of the original Dead End Kids.  Oh!  And did you recognize the lady bothering Edwin in the library?  None other than Natalie Shafer, Lovey Howell on Gilligan’s Island.

While we’re here, we might as well touch on our Behind-The Scenes.  In the Writers’ Room, there’s Don Hartman, who we’ve touched on before, then Melville Shavelson, who would work with Mr. Kaye again in The Five Pennies (which Shavelson Scripted and Directed) and The Seven Little Foys with Bob Hope (which has the must-see number of Mr. Hope and none other than James Cagney dancing together).  Philip Rapp would reteam with Kaye on The Inspector General.  Jack Jevne started his career in a 1919 Silent and over the next thirty-seven years would touch eighty-seven films.  Eddie Moran started in 1923 and is probably best known for his work on the Topper series.  And our Director this time out?  Bruce Humberstone started in 1924 and is probably best known for his work on the -- wait for this twist from our film today -- Charlie Chan and Tarzan series.  So, as I say, keep up on your cross-referencing;  it’s wonderfully surprising what you’ll find.

In wrapping up, I thought I’d pull clips from a few recent reviews (between 2002 & 2009, when two of the DVD versions were released).  As I mentioned in the Mitty Review – how exciting it was that so much time and talent went into getting that remade – I’m as excited to see today’s audiences still thrilled by Wonder Man

“This is one of my all time favorite movies. The music is lively and the antics are purely classic Kaye. This is a must see for anyone who loves musicals and comedy. There are some great character actors in this piece and ordering potato salad has never been so silly.

Wonder Man has some of the finest moments of pure anarchic ad-libbing and timing you will ever get to see after The Marx Brothers.”
“I consider [Kaye] to be the second funniest redhead in showbiz (and do I have to mention who the funniest is?).  He comes across as this warm and gentle guy with massive comedic and musical gifts … always exhibited a flair for funny facial expressions ... introduced songs rife with glib, rapid-fire double-speak … and was a natural at physical comedy.  With the success of his first starring role in the 1944 feature Up In Arms, the powers-that-be in Hollywood couldn't wait to throw Danny Kaye back into the public consciousness.  So, a year later, Kaye's second feature film Wonder Man was released.  His wife Sylvia Fine, throughout Kaye’s career, has excelled in writing specialty lyrics and songs which ideally suited his talents for mimicry and double speak.  She contributes here with "Bali Boogie" and adapts the Russian song "Otchi Tchorniya" to Danny Kaye's particular brand of musical mayhem.  To quote several of the extras in this film: "What a guy."”

Going back (just briefly) to the timing of this picture, I’ll share the last card that appears in the credits.  Because it was at Danny Kaye’s personal request that he and Mr. Goldwyn make this gesture.

            "This is overseas program no. 913 to Families and Friends of Servicemen and Women:  Pictures exhibited in this theatre are given to the armed forces in combat areas around the world. WAR ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY."

            Thank you, Danny.

            Up next?  We go back to Medieval Times to fight Sherlock Holmes and fall in love with Jessica Fletcher in The Court Jester!

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