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.
Red Nichols was one of the most prolific coronet players from 1923 – 1942, appearing, rumor has it, on over 4,000 record sides. Considered an equal to contemporaries Bix Beiderbeck and Louis Armstrong, and responsible for launching the careers of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers and Gene Krupa, he abruptly quit playing jazz when his daughter contracted polio, and stayed at her side, taking a job as a shipyard engineer during World War II, where he disappeared into anonymity for years. While this is excellent source material for a film, The Five Pennies sadly falls into the trite melodrama of biopics from this period.
Danny Kaye does an admirable job, taking on the dramatic role with aplomb. But the film, co-produced by his wife and mastermind Sylvia Fine, demands he offer up several “Danny Kaye”-style musical numbers, and this is where Kaye, and the film, suffer from a certain schizophrenia.
Nichols shows up in New York by way of Ogden Utah as a sideman for bandleader and stern taskmaster Wil Paradise (well played by Bob Crosby). Paradise makes his name leading a sedate, schmaltzy dance band, which does not mesh well with Nichols’ “hot jazz” New Orleans inspired style. Always in trouble, he falls for band singer Bobbie “Willa” Meredith (Barbara Bel Geddes) who he meets on a blind date when watching Louis Armstrong (played by himself!) perform at a Harlem speakeasy. With a new zest for playing authentic jazz, Nichols gets himself and his new wife Willa fired, and strikes out on his own, forming his own band with the gimmicky name, Red Nichols and his Five Pennies. Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey are just a few of the “who’s-who” that gain their chops as Nichols’ sidemen. Along with bandmate Tony Valani (an ill-cast Harry Guardino) acting as Nichols manager, they take the country by storm, performing exhaustingly year round throughout the 1920s and 30s.
As with so many music biopics, (The Benny Goodman Story, The Glenn Miller Story, Young Man With a Horn, etc.) the musician/protagonist tries to define a “certain sound” that will set him apart. But where the others use this device as a driving force, this plot point constantly struggles with the soapy love story of Nichols and Meredith. It’s not until their daughter contracts polio that the film gets back on track, but by then, we don’t know whether to feel sorry for Nichols or not. One moment his wife is telling him he shouldn’t travel and needs to be near his ill daughter, the next she’s bemoaning the fact that he gave up his love of music. As well, in the first half we are treated to several Danny Kaye numbers both with Bel Geddes and Guardino(!) and solo, where the Nichols persona falls away, and we have pure Danny Kaye. Once the drama takes hold the songs go away and we have a standard melodrama.
The film holds more interest for hot jazz enthusiasts than Danny Kaye fans, of which I am both. Hearing Louis Armstrong and Kaye sing and play together is definitely a real treat, and while much of the music sounds more like a 1950s version of the 1920s than authentic arrangements, it’s still first-rate. The real Red Nichols performed the coronet parts, and he really did have a singular sound and style. In fact, thanks to the film, Nichols experienced something of a comeback, and went on to book an extended gig in Las Vegas, where he passed away 6 years later.
While I can’t recommend The Five Pennies to anyone but the most faithful of Kaye fans, it does offer up some good music, and a strong dramatic turn by Kaye, when he’s not straining to remind us he’s also a comedic song and dance man