A few days ago when we were discussing Christmas films we thought of White Christmas and Danny Kaye’s name came up. There are certain performers that are today overlooked — a gentle word for “forgotten” — although they were very big in their time.

Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, wondering why that is. If you have a clue, please let us know.

Danny Kaye is exhibit A. (Eddie Cantor might be exhibit B, but that’s fodder for another blog.)

Kaye, a very big name in Forties and Fifties Hollywood movies and an even bigger name in Sixties TV, is probably completely unknown today by anyone under the age of 50.  Are there any film festivals aching to mount a Danny Kaye retrospective? Are there a rash of books in the offing revisiting his career?

Actually there are two books about Kaye, one (Nobody’s Fool by theater critic Martin Gottfried) published 10 years ago; the other (The Secret Life of Danny Kaye by Michael Freedland) dating to 1985.  We suspect neither sold particularly well.

Born in Brooklyn in 1913 as David Daniel Kaminsky, Kaye dropped out of school as a teenager to begin a show biz career in the old fashioned way, plying the Jewish ‘Borscht Belt’ — resort hotels with entertainment — in New York’s Catskill Mountains.

He married his strong-willed manager, Sylvia Fine, in 1940, and she called the professional shots from then on.  After stage stints he appeared in such films as 1956’s The Court Jester, 1958’s Merry Andrew — a musical comedy in which Kaye plays a British teacher who joins a circus — and as the lead in 1952’s Hans Christian Andersen.

And, of course, there is 1954’s White Christmas, a saccharine Paramount outing — the first movie filmed in Vistavision, no less — built around Irving Berlin’s seasonal chestnut about the joys of being snowbound during the holidays.  It’s a romantic comedy with music costarring Bing Crosby, Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.  The guys play song-and-dance men who fall for a pair of sisters.

Kaye was considered something of a thinking man’s comedian.  He could act, sing, clown and perform in various brogues tongue-twisting songs and dialogue. Kaye also fancied himself a bit of an intellectual. He wrote several books himself. He enjoyed the attention he would receive carrying on at fashionable Hollywood soirees.

I can remember a party at which the piano was successively occupied by Artur Rubinstein, Oscar Levant, and Cole Porter, while Danny Kaye clowned, and Judy Garland sang, recalled George Sanders in his 1960 tome, The Memoirs of a Professional Cad.  By the late Fifties Kaye pretty much shifted to television, and had his own tube series for four years. In 1970, he turned up on Broadway to star in the Richard Rogers musical, Two By Two.

Kaye was by no means universally beloved. Onscreen, he played the genial, benign comedian. Offstage, he behaved differently. In his 2008 American Prince: A MemoirTony Curtis wrote: To my way of thinking, Danny was a very mean and bitter man, and almost everybody seemed to agree with me…he would belittle me all the time. He once asked me, ‘Where did you learn how to fence –the Bronx?’ 

I don’t know why Danny had it in for me. Maybe it was because we both came from New York. Maybe it was because we were both Jewish, and he struggled with that in himself. Or it might have been some complicated sexual feeling.

Kaye was rumored to be bi-sexual, and was said to have had a “relationship” with Sir Laurence Olivier. In any case, his talents so prized back then have not aged well. There was always at look-at-me, show-offy aspect to Kaye’s performing. That doesn’t wear well over time. That’s one view.

What’s your view? Why has Danny Kaye become Danny Who?

 

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