Friday, January 18, 2013

Happy 100th Birthday, Danny Kaye!

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When I was six or seven, my parents took me to see a Danny Kaye movie (very likely The Court Jester) and I still remember thinking afterwards that I didn't know it was humanly possible to laugh that hard. Literally. I wasn't a sad child, I'm sure I laughed a bunch, but not like that, not that convulsively. Danny Kaye was born one hundred years ago today and I am honored to take this opportunity to finally say thanks and hopefully share his comic genius with some new fans.

Kaye was an endlessly inventive comedic performer whose characters were not only clownesque in spirit, but were often specific clown archetypes: a court jester; a circus clown; a mountebank's zany. He played a wide variety of broad characters, often several in the same movie, replete with wild disguises, wilder accents, and inspired gibberish.


“I have cashed in on gloopty-gloop. Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, Jack Benny and others had to rely strictly on pure English. I scramble up the alphabet and hit the jackpot.”


Although he moved well and in fact began his professional career as one of the "Three Terpsichoreans," a vaudevillian dance act, he was not what you'd call a knockabout comedian or an eccentric dancer. His specialty was the comedy "patter" song, and particularly those of the tongue-twister variety (often written by his wife, Sylvia Fine). I suppose this might be thought of as verbal comedy, but the dexterity required, coupled with an amazingly animated face, rates him in my book as a superb physical comedian. Here are a few of my favorite scenes....

The first is from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, very loosely based on the James Thurber short story of a meek man who compensates for his drab life by daydreaming of heroic adventures. In this scene he is a combat pilot who celebrates his latest military triumph by entertaining his fellow soldiers with an imitation of a German professor. In other words, just an excuse for a Danny Kaye song, but a brilliant song it is.

And now to Court Jester, and a priceless song where Kaye's character explains how he became a jester in the first place:

If you played all the way through that, you saw the poison pellets going into the cups. Oops, I mean into the vessels. Which leads to one of Kaye's more famous patter bits (not actually a song), "The Vessel with the Pestle," in which Kaye and a rival knight must fight a battle to the death while avoiding being poisoned — just like Laertes and Hamlet! What's so effective about this is that the patter is crucial to the plot, and that the verbal gymnastics are matched by the physical comedy silliness resulting from Kaye's magnetic armor.

I sure do think the gag could go a lot further rather than being cut off by the king's proclamation but, hey, you can't have everything.

Here's one more, this one a pseudo-Italian song from Merry Andrew, Kaye's circus movie.

I have more to say on the subject of Danny Kaye, and there's more vintage footage that I've yet to explore, so there may well be more posts and more goodies down the road. BUT...  I am determined to get this one out there on his birthday, and it's already 11:30 p.m. here in New York, so.... to be continued.

And now for the punch line to my 100th birthday post. I just read this today in the Los Angeles Times: "Kaye was actually born Jan. 18, 1911, but he celebrated 1913 as the year of his birth. His daughter never discovered the explanation for the switch. He was not conventional, she noted." Other sources say not only was the year 1911, but the actual day was January 28th, not the 18th!

So I guess the joke is on me. Oh well, happy 102nd-ish!

Fun Factoids:
• Legend has it that Kaye could not read a note of music.
• MGM’s Samuel Goldwyn wanted him to have his nose fixed so he would look less Jewish, but Kaye refused.
• He was a professional-level French and Chinese chef and also a jet pilot.
• He devoted much of his life to raising money for UNICEF.
• Kaye's comical Russian accent was paid hommage by Daffy Duck in the cartoon Book Revue (1946), and by songwriter Tom Lehrer in "Lobachevsky" (1953).
• Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, created a short-lived superhero title, Funnyman, based on Kaye.
• Kaye was part-owner of the Seattle Mariners baseball team.
• Kaye was investigated by the FBI for his liberal political beliefs, and was an outspoken foe of blacklisting in 1950s Hollywood.

Some Links:
The "official" Danny Kaye web site
Tribute and fan web site
Yet another fan web site
Danny Kaye: King of Jesters, a new bio; no, I haven't read it.
An Evening with Danny Kaye
The Secret Life of Danny Kaye


Christopher Agostino said...

Thank you, John. As my dvr busily records my favorites on TCM's salute to Danny Kaye this weekend, I think it was "the vessel with the pestle" that made me want to learn how to make people laugh - along with a good dose of Peter Sellers. And, it was that combination of the verbal and the physical (of both of them) that always made it so hard for me to keep my mouth shut when I performed as a mime.

Anonymous said...

The ‘vessel with the pestle’ routine has a predecessor…
Never Say Die’ (1939) starring Bob Hope, with Martha Raye, Alan Mowbray, Victor Killian and Ernest Cossart.

This also had a predecessor… ‘Roman Scandals’ (1933) starring Eddie Cantor, with Verree Teasdale

This also had a predecessor… because it’s an old Vaudeville routine.

But then you knew that, didn’t you?