You’re Never Too Old to Discover Danny Kaye

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, Danny Kaye, Joey Walsh, 1952.

To view Hans Christian Andersen click here.

I have a confession to make, and this is just between us, ok? Up until a few months ago, I had never seen a Danny Kaye film. Not a single one. And before you think I’m accidentally forgetting White Christmas (1954) –nope. Never seen that one, either. For whatever reason, all these years I had rather stubbornly made up my mind that I didn’t like Danny Kaye. I had no explanation and entirely no basis for this formed opinion of mine. I even playfully argued with a good friend, and when he pressed me for a reason why, my response was simply, “Meh. Not my cup of tea.” How ridiculous is that? It’s a completely unfair, unreasonable and irrational stance. And after watching my very first Danny Kaye film, I felt embarrassment and regret for casually reducing the enormous contributions of such an immensely talented entertainer, one who left an indelible mark on Hollywood and pop culture, to an arrogant “meh.” The more I think about it, perhaps I owe my unfounded dislike to Clark Griswold and his hysterically colorful Christmas Eve tirade. I’m sure at some point I thought, “Ha! That’s a funny joke. Well, that’s all I need to know about Danny Kaye. I think that’ll do.”

At the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood this past April, I finally conceded defeat in my near forty-year avoidance of all things Kaye, and joined my friend, a lifelong fan, and his wife to the screening of The Court Jester (1955). As I settled into my seat in the TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s Chinese), I was convinced the next couple of hours would be a technicolor torture chamber, so I tried to focus on the next screening to help make it through. Introducing the film was the legendary Fred Willard, one of my comedy idols. Hearing him discuss his love for the film, and for Danny Kaye, got me thinking that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. And then, as the lights dimmed, I realized that writer/director Edgar Wright was seated directly in front of me. My grumpy mood started to fade away just as Kaye performs the delightful song “Life Could Not Better Be” in the film’s opening credits. For the next two hours I was shamelessly entranced, with a smile so wide my face began to hurt. Now, maybe it was the atmosphere of that iconic, palatial theatre; or the 900 beaming smiles in the audience; or Edgar Wright clapping and laughing throughout, but in that moment a new Danny Kaye fan was born.

Hans_Christian_Andersen_1952_10

I still have much of Kaye’s filmography to work through, but recently I watched Hans Christian Andersen (1952), a beautifully shot technicolor musical produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by Charles Vidor. This fictionalized account of Hans Christian Andersen’s beginnings as a storyteller and published author of fairy tales is a fairy tale in of itself. And while I didn’t find this film nearly as enjoyable as The Court Jester, I still found Kaye to be utterly charming. His talent for pantomime, rapid fire word play and tongue twisters accompanied with that lovely singing voice of his is truly unique.

What makes Danny Kaye’s on-screen presence so remarkable is his delightful interactions with children. He understands them. He knows exactly the right things say to those children to encourage imagination, or bring a smile, or build confidence, but without the condescension that’s so often found in adults. And Kaye isn’t a paternal figure—far from it. He’s childlike in his ability to tell magical stories in a way that children can understand, but that adults, if allowed to lower their guard, can enjoy as well.

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, Danny Kaye, 1952

There are several moments in Hans Christian Andersen that simply don’t work, making the film a bit of a disjointed mess. Farley Granger is terribly miscast as Niels, the Copenhagen-based ballet company director. And while accomplished French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire (in her first film role) is allowed to showcase her talents, particularly in a lengthy ballet sequence based on Andersen’s Little Mermaid, her role and performances feel a bit out of place with the pacing and tone of the film. But every moment Kaye is on the screen, from singing the story of Thumbelina to a little girl or The Ugly Duckling to a sick little boy outcast from his peers, is pure magic. Kaye’s infectious spirit makes Hans Christian Andersen worthwhile, despite the frustrating plotline.

So, after many Danny Kaye-less years, my unexpected adventure continues. And in an effort to not repeat the sins of the past, I’ve brought my daughter along with me.

Jill Blake

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17 Responses You’re Never Too Old to Discover Danny Kaye
Posted By Doug : August 5, 2017 1:08 am

“screening of The Court Jester (1955).” Good for you, Jill-it IS a delight, and Angela Lansbury, Glynis Johns and Basil Fawlt…Rathbone all add to the fun.

Posted By Jack : August 5, 2017 1:09 am

No one seriously interested in motion pictures would ever confess to such a lapse. It just boggles the mind of this film buff. Then again, it just might be your age (probably very young, I would guess) that kept you in the dark. But it is never too late, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Up In Arms, anything from 40s or the Goldwyn years, would be a better starting point than Hans Christen Andersen, where Kaye looks and acts a little dispirited, because the movie as written by Moss Hart itself lacked the kind of high spirits that epitomized Kaye., the consummate entertainer. These forties films were more tuneful, a hell of a lot more fun, and displayed his singing, his eccentric dancing, his physical comedy, his idiosyncratic pantomimes and rapid-fire novelty sons — like Tchaikovsky. The other side of Kaye was his dramatic role as a holocaust survivor in the made for television movie “Skokie.” It is worth seeing.

Posted By Doug : August 5, 2017 10:18 am

Jack-every time I sit down I have a lapse. This film buff’s mind is unboggled, as we all have areas of non-knowledge. I myself have seen few foreign films, as my focus has always been Hollywood, especially romantic comedies and straight comedies/drama.
I like Danny Kaye just fine; his movies with Virginia Mayo introduced me to her art and beauty.
Walter Mitty-I’ve always been a fan of Thurber. Thurber got me over having been bitten by the acting bug. In high school we were doing “A Thurber Carnival” and I was sandbagged-my buddies all did poorly in tryouts for reciting “The Night The Bed Fell” so I ‘won’ it.
And died each performance as I wasn’t able to get it down. Dead air and flop sweats. Cured!

Posted By mdr : August 5, 2017 6:43 pm

Jill, what a terrific way to be introduced to the multi-talented Danny Kaye … I’m so happy for you! And remember,
“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.”

Of course, you need to see White Christmas, if you haven’t already. I’d also recommend Wonder Man, though it’s a bit uneven, which is vastly superior to Hans Christian Andersen – an unfortunate waste of your time.

The Kid from Brooklyn and A Song is Born – both remakes – are also worth a look.

I’m always looking to dispel my own unwarranted prejudices too and have recently begun to rewatch some classics I’d earlier discounted, with mixed results;-)

Posted By kingrat : August 5, 2017 9:01 pm

Jill, I also was in the audience watching THE COURT JESTER on the big screen. Like you, I absolutely loved it. Great cinematography to match a great performance by Danny Kaye. Many other good actors, too.

Posted By Renee Leask : August 7, 2017 6:44 pm

I was lucky enough to grow up watching Danny Kaye on TV. Welcome to the fan club!

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : August 7, 2017 7:59 pm

It’s funny. When I was a kid, I loved Danny Kaye movies, and never missed a chance to see them when they were on TV (usually on PBS). A few years back I saw a couple of them (The Court Jester and The Inspector General) for the first time in 25 years and wondered what I ever liked about them. I haven’t seen what were my two favorites, The Kid from Brooklyn and A Song is Born, since the early ’80s, but once I’d seen The Milky Way and Ball of Fire, I knew the Kaye remakes were inferior to the originals anyway.

Posted By Jill Blake : August 9, 2017 1:50 pm

Jack–

Just because I am just now discovering Danny Kaye doesn’t lessen my interest or expertise about cinema. We can’t see them all! Honestly, nothing is more thrilling than seeing a film that is new-to-me. Or sharing a film I love with a friend for the first time. Life would be very boring if there weren’t new things to discover.

As for my age–that is irrelevant. I have friends who are younger than I am (37) and they have loved Danny Kaye since childhood. It’s all about what you’re introduced to as a kid, not the year you were born. While my parents didn’t introduce me to Danny Kaye, they did share other classic film and television with me, which set the foundation for my interest today.

Of course, you are entitled to your opinion that one can’t have gaps in their movie viewing and still take cinema seriously, but I think that as movie fans we should embrace those lapses. We should look at each film, each actor’s career as an adventure. And we should encourage one another to step outside of our comfort zones and preconceptions and try something new–without judgment.

Posted By Jill Blake : August 9, 2017 1:51 pm

mdr-

I’ll definitely check those out!

Posted By Jill Blake : August 9, 2017 1:51 pm

kingrat–

Wasn’t that a wonderful screening? Such a great audience.

Hopefully we can meet at next year’s festival!

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2017 4:22 pm

Met the man himself years when he came to conduct our city’s massed school band at a special UNICEF benefit. I was thrilled beyond measure, my fellow musicians less so, but I was that weird kid who’d already seen Walter Mitty, Hans Christian Andersen and Wonder Man, so I was much more impressed. As expected, he was warm and witty and clowned around with the musicians, and had the whole hotel ballroom in the palm of his hand. One of my fondest childhood memories.

Posted By Patricia van Gulik : October 2, 2017 2:54 am

I fell in love with this man from the age of about 6 years. And now i am 49 and stull adore him. The first videotape i ever bought in my life was white christmas. Searched for Peter Pan for years. Now i am becoming grandmother in a few weeks. Hope the little one will gonna like him too. My daughter saw a movie few weeks ago and said to me. Yes mom he sure is nice to watch. He is really funny.

Posted By Janet Mary : October 2, 2017 4:46 am

My 10yr heart… fell in love with Enchanting Hans Christian Anderson…(aka Danny Kaye

Posted By Janet Mary : October 2, 2017 4:47 am

My 10yr heart… fell in love with Enchanting Hans Christian Anderson…(aka Danny Kaye

Posted By Sarah Mayo : October 2, 2017 8:47 am

I love Danny Kaye. I wish I could have been born in that era. I think he was one of the most accomplished actors ever. One of the most caring people ever also. The work that he did for UNICEF was amazing also. I would have loved to have met him in real life, what an honor that would have been.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : October 12, 2017 11:24 pm

Philistines.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : October 31, 2017 11:31 am

As a former blogger here from years back, I did a few posts on Danny, my favorite movie comedian. The Court Jester is gorgeously perfect, I love The Inspector General, Walter Mitty, so many. A tiny output compared to most movie comedians but then again he wasn’t exactly a movie comedian. Obviously could do more — probably TOO much — but at least we have the movie he DID make. There is something sweet about him, something gentle, crazy but never one-note. Congrats on discovering him!

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