What to make ultimately of Danny Kaye, a very big name in Forties and Fifties Hollywood movies and an even bigger name in Sixties TV, who 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?
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 was brought to Hollywood by Sam Goldwyn and starred in a series of big budget technicolor musicals with Virginia Mayo, Wonder Man, The Kid From Brooklyn, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and A Song is Born.
After he left Goldwyn 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 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.
Kaye was considered something of a thinking man’s comedian. He could act, sing, clown and perform 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.
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 Memoir, Tony 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, which doesn’t hold up over time. That’s the view expressed in our DANNY KAYE –Danny Who? blog published back on Dec. 29, 2011.
Reader Linda Atamian caught up with our piece, and responded with the following:
I thought your piece on Danny Kaye was honest as well as revealing.
I am currently reading a biography of Cole Porter. In it, the affair between Danny Kaye and Sir Laurence Olivier is mentioned. Their relationship seems almost ludicrous– knock-around Jewish comedian-actor from Brooklyn and titled member of the English drama aristocracy.
I am afraid that I side with Tony Curtis in your piece. Kaye sounded like a bully as well as being quite nasty.
Am I wrong in thinking that about Danny Kaye? I know he won an award from the Queen of Denmark for his portrayal of Hans Christian Anderson, but still, he sounds like he was too much the egotist.
Well, as you can glean from our piece, we agree, Linda. Thanks.