By Wade Sheeler
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 was not a household name when he appeared in his first starring role, 1944’s Up in Arms, a remake of Eddie Cantor’s 1930 hit Whoopee, but he was a well enough known nightclub entertainer that word-of-mouth spread fast. He had honed his skill on the Borscht Belt from the early 1930s in different permutations; from a “tummler” (Yiddish for “master of ceremonies” and “generator of audience interaction”) to a member of the vaudevillian troupe, “The Three Terpischoreans” (Greek for “dancer”). A hit on the circuit, he and his troupe traveled throughout Europe and the Far East where he learned to sing and speak gibberish, which crossed all language barriers, insuring his success wherever he performed.
Prior to 1944 he had made a string of short films for Educational Pictures before it closed down, and was offered a contract with MGM, which he turned down, finding it too restrictive. The master producer Samuel Goldwyn, however, knew how to strike a deal that would be advantageous for both parties, giving Kaye not only first right of refusal, but the ability to have his wife, pianist/composer Sylvia Fine, the freedom to write and arrange his comedy numbers. This was a key ingredient to his successful formula for the rest of his life.
Goldwyn’s musical comedies were lush productions. He had helmed the previous version of Up in Arms, Whoopie as a two-strip Technicolor extravaganza. He saw in Kaye a similarity with his first star Eddie Cantor, both Jewish comedians who excelled at music and comedy, with that same Borscht belt energy and ability to draw an audience in with universal appeal.
Up in Arms is very similar to a good portion of early to mid 1940s wartime comedies; a hapless fish out of water is forced to adhere to the military’s strict guidelines, but is far too manic, goofy or accident-prone to make a go of it. Swap Kaye out for Bob Hope and you’ve got 1941’s Caught in the Draft, or swap out Hope for Abbott and Costello and you’ve got the phenomenally successful Buck Privates.
It was a successful formula, especially for a country starved for entertainment, specifically material that was patriotic, proudly waving the red, white and blue.
What makes Up in Arms stand out from the rest, besides the rich Technicolor and the musical numbers, is Kaye himself. Try erasing what you know about Jerry Lewis or Jim Carrey, and imagine seeing Danny Kaye for the first time. His shock of (dyed) blonde hair, prominent nose, doughy and malleable face, pitch perfect singing voice, disciplined pantomime and physicality were both alien and contemporary. Looking back now, Danny Kaye, like the Andrews Sisters, feels part and parcel with the optimism of the war effort’s milieu. But its his style that both uses the touchstones of the period, the jive talk (“Greetings gate”) that made him both hip and cool yet still clownish. Kaye was a master mime, and he trades much of the “jokes” that were so indicative of the period, for impersonations, “takes,” wildly manic behavior, and a clownish persona that has appeal to children and adults.
Kaye plays ‘Danny Weems’ a neurotic hypochondriac who works as an elevator attendant in a medical building just so he can be close to doctors. Danny is always testing out his theories of affliction with nurse Georgia (a very fun and lively Dinah Shore) who has a crush on Danny. He, though, only has eyes for nurse Mary (Constance Dowling). Danny best buddy, Joe (Dana Andrews – a mainstay of Goldwyn productions) tries to reverse the draft board’s decision to mark Danny as “1A” (available for active military duty) and ends up getting himself drafted as well. What follows are comedy and musical numbers strung together with nary an eye to the rational or explainable. Most of these hit the mark dead-center, while only a couple feel contrived. Unfortunately, the first routine, “The Lobby Number,” is the weakest; with Kaye imitating the familiar trappings of moviegoing; the long lines, the previews, the noisy customers. It’s all very quaint, but without any reason, Kaye just comes off as somewhat obnoxious. Once the foursome enter the military, the routines become believable and deliver. A record they make at a sideshow before shoving off turns up later in a hilarious lip sync routine, and Kaye being forced on stage, causes him to deliver his signature “improvisations” speaking gibberish and singing “Melody in 4-F,” a highlight of the film.
Throughout Kaye’s career, his material almost always dealt with a double personality. He would play a shy nebbish, and something inside of him would force him out of his shell to perform, sometimes pushing it to extremes. Whether living in a fantasy world to offset his drab existence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, or being inhabited by the ghost of his dead nightclub performing brother in Wonder Man, Kaye went back to this source material again and again to great success.
Even in his first opus, Up in Arms, a dream sequence allows him to shed his mild-mannered skin and sing, dance, all decked out in purple zoot suit, scat and bounce off Dinah Shore, who does an admirable job of keeping up.
There are many reasons to start your Danny Kaye binge watching with Up in Arms, not the least of which is seeing The Goldwyn Girls, an ever-changing line-up of models and actresses who humorously frame many Goldwyn musical comedies. Most interesting is seeing Virginia Mayo. She went on to star opposite Kaye in the remaining four Goldwyn comedies, but here is a featured Goldwyn Girl. You can’t help but notice her for her uncanny beauty and spark. In fact, Kaye and Mayo knew each other before working on the Goldwyn films, they had both worked the Vaudeville circuit together.
The only cringe-worthy element of Up in Arms is the politically incorrect final act, when Kaye single-handedly thwarts an entire Japanese military unit when they are stationed on an island in the Pacific. It’s understandable that during this period, when the US was at war with the Japanese, that the derogatory slur “jap” was used pervasively, but it still stings when watching now.
That Danny Kaye was a talented showman is evident here, but what’s more amazing is the many faces he wore throughout the decades as a successful film, radio and TV star, ambassador to UNICEF, chef, pilot, and ladies man. His style of comedy was timeless, and his persona so identifiable while still being wildly fringe insures he will be loved for generations that take the time to enjoy his work.
Up In Arms is available as a manufacture on demand (MOD) Blu-ray through Warner Archive.