The Warner Archive Collection recently released two box sets of Danny Kaye’s greatest films. During the 1940s, Kaye had an uninterrupted string of critically and financially successful films, four of which are available in Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years. The Retro Set will be reviewing each of these titles, as well as other Danny Kaye films available for purchase and download.
Danny Kaye’s third feature and pairing with Samuel Goldwyn was his biggest box-office hit to date. The Kid from Brooklyn continually tops fans’ favorite lists, and while Wonder Man may be my “end-all be-all” favorite Kaye film, there are several elements that make Kid a solid musical comedy.
The film was released exactly ten years after the original version (The Milky Way) was released starring Harold Lloyd. When Samuel Goldwyn purchased the remake rights for The Milky Way, he ordered the original negative destroyed (just like a producer) so no comparison could be made. Luckily, the film still exists today, thanks to Harold Lloyd’s careful preservation of all his work. Most interestingly, the original was directed by comedy veteran Leo McCary, who took sick near the end of filming and Norman Z. McLeod stepped in to finish up principle photography. Interesting, because McLeod directed the Danny Kaye remake. Veteran character actor Lionel Stander was also so good in the original, he returned to play the same role here.
Kaye plays Burleigh Sullivan, a shy, sweet milquetoast of a milkman who gets involved in a street fight with the world middleweight boxing champion Speed McFarlane, ducking his way into “mistakenly” knocking the champ out. Press grabs a hold of the news, and before you can say “farce,” Kaye is promoted as a great boxer in a series of fixed fights. He begins to believe his own publicity, and turns from an innocent into a big, ostentatious blowhard, almost overnight.
Like the best Kaye films, the theme deals with a split personality (Wonder Man, Secret Life of Walter Mitty), and the spiritual battle for a balanced middle ground. Kaye was known in private circles as displaying an out-of-control “ego,” and to those closest to him as almost completely insufferable. He had worked long and hard to get his career going, and now by the mid 1940s, he was the biggest box-office star, and was enjoying this lifestyle all the way.
While the studio press machines did their best to offer up the most squeaky clean versions of their stars, nightclub fights and rudeness to journalists made its way into the columns. Whether it was his idea, his shrewd manager/writer/lyricist wife Sylvia Fine or someone else behind the curtain, the genius move to “play up” Kaye’s struggle to stay humble while battling with inner demons proved to be an engaging and easily recyclable conflict in his films.
Virginia Mayo, the love interest he was continually paired up with through the rest of the Goldwyn films, usually played the “girl next door” who appreciated Kaye for his simple, shy side. Here again, she falls for the milkman who bangs on her door in the middle of the night for help when his horse Agnes who goes into labor in the middle of his delivery route. By the time he returns from a cross-country promotional tour, he is a bombastic and obnoxious egoist who she barely recognizes. She learns that his bouts have all been “fixed’” and she pleads with him to quit the racket. The fight manager, however, works the other side of Sullivan, trying to explain that in the battle for good vs evil, it’s actually the one who wants to “give up” that’s the bad guy. In the end, Kaye’s fighting days are over, but the real question, in a very cryptic conclusion, asks which side really “prevailed?”
The usual fun and fluffy musical numbers are here, all decked out with the Goldwyn Girls and a very perky Vera Ellen in her second film, playing Kaye’s sister, dancing up a storm. Kaye only has one signature number in the mix, penned by wife Fine, that really doesn’t fit into the regular milieu. After crashing a charity benefit where both Vera Ellen and Virginia Mayo are performing, Kaye does a comedy song about “Pavlova.” Fine was accused of plagiarizing her own earlier routine that helped make Kaye a nightclub star, called “Tchaikovsky.” The Pavlova song itself is quite inspired, a satirical “skewering” of modern dance that is a fascinating time-capsuled commentary on art vs. commerce, but feels completely out of place, coming from the awkward milkman character Kaye is playing. Critics at the time sighted the inconsistency, but audiences didn’t seem to care. The song and the film were big hits.
The real reason to see The Kid From Brooklyn, however, is the handful of scenes involving Walter Abel as promoter Gabby Sloane, Lionel Stander as trainer Spider Schultz, and the magnificent Eve Arden as Gabby’s girlfriend. Of course any film with Arden’s special comic gifts is a treat, but the writing and timing of fast-talking, easy to explode Abel, goon Stander, smart-ass Arden and simple-minded Kaye, when they’re all in the same room, is lightning in a bottle. Whenever you have characters with such clear motivations, and the actors grab a firm hold of their objectives, combined with strong writing and assured direction, it is sublime perfection.
While Kaye really delivers a fine performance, an interesting exercise would be to view Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way with The Kid From Brooklyn and try and determine which is the stronger film. I’ve seen both, and while the similarities are startling, I would say in this particular match up, Kaye deserves the knock-out.
The Kid From Brooklyn is available as a manufacture on demand (MOD) Blu-ray through Warner Archive.