Friday, February 10, 2017

Why The Court Jester Gave Ulcers to Paramount Execs

Big crowd scenes that got out of hand contributed to massive cost over-runs on The Court Jester.
What would turn out to be Danny Kaye’s greatest motion picture triumph started out as his biggest bomb.

The Court Jester (1956) was supposed to cost comfortably less than $2 million. Its final price tag hit $4 million and the picture, in its initial run, made just half of that.

So where did all the extra money go?

The biggest cost overruns came from the picture going dramatically over-schedule. It was originally budgeted to be filmed in 48 days, plus 12 rehearsal days and 10 days of second unit shooting. It ended up taking 76 days for principal photography, 18 to rehearse, and 18 for second unit shooting. The biggest—but far from the only—problems were underestimating just how difficult it would be to pull off the tournament and especially the elaborate “midget battle” finale. In fact, an entirely new, larger contraption had to be built mid-way through shooting to launch the midgets when the originally device wouldn’t work.

Among the other cost over-runs:

• The midget number cost an extra $75,000 to shoot, the “basket number” an additional $40,000.

• Photographer Ray Rennahan had to be replaced at the last minute by Ray June, costing an extra $8,000.

• The main title had to be remade several times, increasing its cost by $30,000.

• 21 scheduled filming days were lost: $408,000. In fact, production went so long that other movies, including The Ten Commandments, needed its equipment and soundstages, and sets had to be constantly broken down (an extra $7,100), stored and rebuilt (another $28,100) over and over again.

• They also lost staff as production dragged. William Watson was added late in the game as second unit director. An extra $7,200.

• Robert Alton was called in to replace James Starbuck as dance director (though Starbuck retained choreographer credit). Up-charge: $18,000.

• An extra day of retakes: $14,000.

• Increases in lighting expenses: another $95,000.

• More stuntmen, $10,000.

• More extras, $15,000.

• Costumes for all of them, $22,000.

• More wigs, $9,000.

• Additional insurance, $8,100.

• Underestimate of split screen expenses: $8,000.

Not all of the cost over-runs were surprises. In fact, just before filming began, the directors, Norman Panama and Mel Frank, could tell they were going to blow past their budget by hundreds of thousands and they started lopping out entire scenes and songs, including an elaborate opening planned for Danny’s character to perform at a circus with the midgets. If the directors would have filmed the version they’d originally intended, I have no doubt the film would have cost closer to $5 million.

For more details on all the ups and downs of creating the The Court Jester—and Danny Kaye’s other classic movies—check out Danny Kaye: King of Jesters!

(And my apologies for not providing a story for these last many months, due to being overwhelmed by several other projects. Hopefully, things will start picking up again around here!)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

1,001 Rare Danny Kaye Photos

Getty Images has compiled a repository of millions of news, magazine and publicity photos, including more than 1,000 fascinating images of Danny Kaye.

Among the ones that caught my eye, there are more than a dozen shots of Danny entertaining in the early 1940s at New York's La Martinique nightclub, where he first performed "Stanislavsky" and where he made famous numbers like "Anatole of Paris."

My favorite image from the La Martinique: Check out long-haired Sylvia Fine at the piano in the rear.

This sumptuous shot of the Gunslinger daydream sequence from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) gives a nice view of the skeleton set.

Kaye as Walter O'Mitty in Mitty's filmed-then-deleted Irish Informant daydream sequence, in which he sang "Molly Malone."

Danny plays around with a bizarre musical instrument between takes on A Song Is Born (1948).

Kaye, in street clothes, entertains children on the set of Hans Christian Andersen (1952).

Danny goes over the Hans Christian Andersen playlist with composer Frank Loesser (at piano) and orchestra leader Walter Scharf.

Recording Loesser's songs, with Scharf conducting and Kaye and co-star Ziti Jeanmarie (standing on box) in the "recording box."

Danny and Vera-Ellen dance on the slippery underside of a boat for White Christmas (1954).

Sylvia, ever-present cigarette at hand, with her husband on the set of The Court Jester (1956).

Danny, Sylvia and daughter Dena rehearse her first commercial recording, "Little Child" (1956).

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Notice anything unusual in this foreign Danny Kaye poster?

This is a half-sheet poster for the 1970s Italian re-release of one of Danny Kaye’s best known movies. Can you tell which one?

The cast and crew mentioned make clear it’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). The foreign re-title, “Sogni Proibiti,” is a common Italian phrase, meaning “Forbidden Dreams”—and is used as the title to this day whenever the film is broadcast in Italy or sold on DVD.

The artwork, though, may have thrown you for a loop. The color photo is actually from The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963). The line art is even stranger. The head shot appears to be a bad Europeanized redraw of the famous pop-eyed image of Kaye from the original Mitty ad campaign. (See here) The tux-and-girls shot, though, appears to be a redraw of elements from several movies, notably James Bond in Thunderball, but none of them having anything remotely to do with Danny Kaye or Walter Mitty.

Evidently, the Italian distributor was trying to capitalize on the Bond-mania of the early 1970s and pretend that one of Mitty’s dreams was to be a tough guy secret agent. (Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.)

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Undiscovered Danny Kaye's Around-the-World Burlesque Show

A.B. Marcus played up the girls whenever he advertised “La Vie Paree” (1933).

Danny Kaye’s 16 months touring with the A.B. Marcus Show from 1933-34 changed his life. After five summers mired as a toomler in the Borscht Belt, it made him part of a professional stage troupe, sent him across the country and around the world, and helped him discover new singing, dancing and comedic talents he didn’t even know he had.

It started in the fall of 1933. Danny, then 22, was in Detroit, having tagged along on a vaudeville tour with the lead dancers from his Catskills resort, Dave Harvey and Cathleene Young. They called themselves “The Three Terpsichoreans,” but when girly revue producer A.B. Marcus hired them (reluctantly including Danny as the third-wheel in the ballroom dance team), he’d bill them as merely “Harvey, Young & Kaye.”

They were among about a dozen groups and soloists who performed in the 20-some acts. Harvey, Young & Kaye usually did straight dance acts that developed into some comical overtones. Danny was good at ingratiating himself with the other performers and quickly found work in supporting roles in other dance routines and skits. By the time the show was headed overseas, he had worked himself into more than half the acts.

Harvey, Young & Kaye joined the troupe in the Midwest, played through Kalamazoo and Benton Harbor, Michigan, in early October 1933. Seventy entertainers, musicians and artisans piled into two Pullman cars, with their props and belongings carried in three 70-foot baggage cars. The plan was to head up into Canada, then hopscotch back down to the East Coast, through the Southeast, and then head westward, performing one-night stands along their way to San Francisco.

Mr. Alvord, the advance manager, furiously worked weeks ahead to book midnight shows at theaters in any town their train would stop. Stops included Winnipeg, Mason, Iowa; East Liverpool, Ohio; Bluefield, West Virginia; Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Charlotte, Spartanburg, Charleston, Birmingham, Atlanta, Mobile, Alabama (where the New Orleans police chief sent a representative to check out the show to see if it would be acceptable for his fair city. It wasn’t; he withdrew the permit); Dallas, Wichita, Amarillo, and a farewell performance February 7, 1934, in San Francisco, before they set sail on the steamship MS Asama Maru the next day for the Far East.

Harvey, Young & Kaye were featured on the lead page of the program for one of the shows performed in Asia.

In the U.S., they called the revue “La Vie Paree,” which Marcus said was conceived “to portray a glimpse at the night life of Paris, including such resorts as the Follies Bergere, Moulin Rouge, and Casino de Paris.” It did get a little racy, so no one under 16 was admitted. Alvord would tell theater owners that they could have their choice of either the G-rated show or the naughty, midnight version. Invariably, they wanted the latter.

Joining Harvey, Young & Kaye on the playbill:

• featured dancer/dance producer Leon Miller, a “diminutive chap with saucer-like eyes and feet that just won’t behave”

• Ben McAtee, headline comedian with horn-rimmed glasses whose routines included “a droll travesty on mind reading”

• charming comedienne Margo Busch, whom one reviewer described as “statuesque… as blondely lovely as Jean Harlow and as graceful a kicker as Charlotte Greenwood”

• comedienne Georgene Millar, “Marcus’ version of Zazu Pitts”

• Elmer Coudy, former lead comic who’d been with Marcus since the early 1920s and had made his name back then by singing blackface

• Eula Coudy, Elmer’s wife and leader of the 11-piece California Night Hawks band; she claimed to be “the only woman orchestra director in the world with a major musical show”

• Dorothy “Dottie” Coudy, their daughter and a featured singer/dancer

• blonde prima donna Lillian McCoy

• accordionist Les Sechrist

• singer Lee Mason, “a lad with curly hair and an appealing tenor voice”

• Six Bounding Ali Babas, “swarthy” acrobats/“gymnasts from Araby”

• The Brady Sisters, a “neat dancing specialty”

• Ha Cha San, an exotic dancer famous as the “Silver Goddess” for appearing in nothing more than a coat of heavy Vaseline mixed with silver paint (and presumably a tiny pair of silver-painted panties); when the tour returned to the U.S., Marcus claimed they’d discovered the Chinese native in the Orient and convinced her to come to America; in fact, she was American and Marcus had seen her act at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and convinced her to join his tour once the Fair shut down in the fall.

• La Fanette, Ha Cha San’s sister who also danced unclothed, with fans. She claimed to have originated the fan dance at Le Cafe du Rat-Mort in Paris, and that Sally Rand copied her.

• dancers Karels’ Adagio Four, “three husky chaps who toss a doll-like miss around”

• The Marcus Peaches, nearly three dozen showgirls, who provided pretty scenery, which helped audiences to overlook their lack of song and dance training. Danny’s first hard-core romance, Holly Fine, was a Peach, whom Marcus had discovered sipping a soda at a drugstore. He’d teach her to dance. Marcus even admitted his Peaches “have been chosen solely for their beauty and they display that beauty in gorgeous stage sets just as completely as the law will permit.”

Kaye (far right), with girlfriend Holly Fine and unknown.

In the many reviews I was able to track down for the shows, I could only find one that mentioned Danny, sort of—it mostly referred to Cathleene Young, “a gorgeous blond with the grace of a gazelle, accompanied by two partners, compose the dancing trio of Harvey, Young and Kaye.”

The world tour, which Marcus anticipated could last up to three years, was to begin February 26 at a massive new theater in Tokyo, the Nippon Eiga Gekljo. The showplace cost 21 million yen ($6.5 million in 1934 dollars) and seated almost 1,000 more people than Radio City Music Hall, making it among the largest theaters in the world. Marcus hoped his troupe would play two shows a day there for three months, assuming they could keep extending their work permits.

After seven weeks, “La Vie Paree” (and two complementary revues, “Broadway Merry-go-Round” and “Fantasies of 1934”) had entertained a quarter of a million Japanese theatergoers and took in 400,000 yen.

“Then something happened,” said Mr. Alvord. “Further extension was refused. The reason was a technicality of the law, according to the officials. Although the statute had never before been invoked, it plainly stated in the book that only one extension of a work permit might be granted. We had enjoyed two. Engagements were cancelled in Osaka and Nagoya and we sailed for Shanghai.”

Kaye (front row, third from left) & crew enjoy the nightlife in the Orient. Partners Cathleene Young & Dave Harvey are standing, middle of second row. I assume most of the Asians in the back row work at the restaurant where the photo was taken. Other educated guesses would be the girl to the right of Danny is either his girlfriend Holly Fine or comedienne Margo Busch. The muscular gents are likely Bounding Ali Babas. The darker girl in front of Young might be Ha Cha San?

Fortunately, after playing in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Canton, Manila and Singapore, Japanese authorities let the troupe return to Japan and finish up their tour in Osaka. Since enough time had passed, they were able to grant a new permit by terming the Osaka booking “a new deal.”

Out of welcoming ports, Marcus called the troupe back to the U.S. to regroup, after just short of seven months away. The group sailed on the MS Heian Maru from Kobe, Japan, on October 1, 1934, arriving in Seattle 15 days later. Danny stayed on with Marcus performing shows in the States until January 1935, when he had had enough—gaining plenty of experience, despite most of the attention going to his more unusual co-stars.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Hans Christian Andersen Recordings Made Just for Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye learned his songs for Hans Christian Andersen from a fresh-faced kid just out of college.

I discovered Danny Kaye through repeat viewings of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty in prime time on KTLA Channel 5. In the late 1970s, Mitty and Kaye’s other Goldwyn features were moved into the rotation at the channel’s weekend afternoon Family Film Festival, hosted by Tom Hatten. The amiable Hatten had joined the station in the early 1950s and was quickly promoted to host of the Popeye show, airing old Fleischer cartoons and instructing young viewers how to draw the characters during the breaks.

Tom Hatten hosted KTLA-5's Family Film Festival on weekend afternoons from the late 1970s through the 1980s

As renowned movie memorabilia collector Rick Greene recently told me: “I’ve been reading – and loving – the Danny Kaye book and just finished the chapter on Hans Christian Andersen, and remembered a story about that film.

“In the early and mid-1980’s, I was friendly with Tom Hatten at KTLA when he hosted the Family Film Festival. I loaned him memorabilia on several occasions which he showed on air and even mentioned my name, giving me credit for the stuff (usually Jerry Lewis or Martin & Lewis posters, books, records, etc., that he’d hold up and talk about). He would usually drive over to my apartment and pick up and then return the stuff... such a nice guy. So, I had the opportunity to sit and shoot the breeze with him a few times.

“One time he told me that in late 1951, he was contacted by someone associated with Frank Loesser to go into the recording studio and record all of the songs he had written for Danny Kaye’s next film for Goldwyn, Hans Christian Andersen. The purpose for this was so Danny, who didn’t read music, could learn the songs from these recordings just before filming was to begin as he was traveling around the world performing his stage act. So Tom and a gal went into the studio with a FULL orchestra and made the recordings of every song. These records were rushed to Kaye wherever he was in the world, and he listened to them over and over.

“Tom said that when the film came out, he noticed that Danny faithfully copied his every inflection and pause from his recordings, which flattered him. He said it was one of the most unusual show biz jobs he ever had, as it was never intended to be heard by anyone other than Danny Kaye!”

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Walter Mitty Goes Dutch

Humorist James Thurber loved Danny Kaye as Walter Mitty of the daydreams, so spent several years encouraging the Studio include more and more dreams.

As is well documented in my book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters, James Thurber hated the Danny’s filmed version of his short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” He hated the musical and specialty numbers, the broad comedy, the melodrama, the Goldwyn Girls, everything—except the dream sequences. He considered them to be closest in tone to that of his writing and, when screenwriter Ken Englund spent 10 days with Thurber crafting script version number four (of an eventual 13), the humorist concentrated most of his efforts on Thurber-izing the existing dreams and adding as many new ones as they could find a place for.

One Thurber suggestion, which made it into the January 18, 1946, script, was a Dutch Dream. They inserted into the wedding scene. Walter is standing at the altar, as his arranged fiancee Gertrude (Ann Rutherford) is walking down the aisle. The electric fans in the background dissolve into windmills in Holland, rotating to the echoes of “ta-pocketa, ta-pocketa.”

Walter is transformed into a Dutch Boy in a field of tulips, with Rosalind (Virginia Mayo) as his Dutch bride. Merry villagers pelt the lovers with tulips, accompanied by a “very brief song and dance which is not a musical number, but only a four-line snatch of a corny folk turne to show that everybody’s happy.” (Thurber’s emphasis)

Narrator: “And there is no happier lad in all the country by the Zuider Zee than Walter Van Mitty as he embraced is betrothed Rosalind Van Horn, the fairest maiden in all tulip land. Little did he realize that at that very moment grim tragedy lureked and that this was to be his last kiss—”

Walter looks down and sees a trickle of water by his wooden shoes.

Walter: “The dyke! There’s a leak in the dyke!”

They run to the dyke and Walter shoves a finger in the hole.

Walter: “Rosalind, run! Save the town!”

Rosalind: “But you’ll drown!”

Walter: “No matter—”

He clutches her. She sobs. They kiss.

Walter: “No, you must.”

Rosalind: “Just give me something to place by my heart.”

He hands her his wooden shoes. She runs off as he blows her a kiss. The dyke breaks, and an avalanche of water consumes Walter.

We then return to the chapel, just as Walter goes to fish Gertrude’s wedding ring from his pocket and instead pulls out Rosalind’s little shoes, confirming to him that’s his dream girl is not just a dream.

After Englund returned to the Studio and submitted the revised script, it was handed over to one of Kaye’s comedy writers, Phil Rapp. The fatalistic Dutch Dream was the first to be cut.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Danny & Stannie

Danny Kaye stepped up to receive Stan Laurel's special Academy Award, after the comedian fell ill.

Danny Kaye and Stan Laurel didn’t exactly run around in the same circles. Kaye hob-nobbed with the elite in all fields—the finest actors and musicians, nationally known doctors and politicians. Laurel’s closest friends were his fellow screenwriters and other behind-the-scenes show biz folks.

Yet Danny greatly admired Stan’s work and talent, and in the early 1960s was among the many who visited the elderly Laurel at his beachside Santa Monica apartment. There, Laurel would welcome all who called, whether famous admirers like Dick Van Dyke and Marcel Marceau or just plain regular folks who’d always dreamed of meeting their idol.

Stan finally gets his hands on the prize.
In 1961, Laurel was selected to receive an honorary Academy Award, but shortly before the ceremony, he developed a hemorrhage in his left eye. He had Danny Kaye accept the Oscar for him. Soon after, Dick Van Dyke personally delivered the statue to Stan.

(Ironically, one other special Oscar was presented that same year—to Gary Cooper, who was also too ill to attend and had his award picked up by Jimmy Stewart. Four weeks later, Cooper was dead of cancer.)

Laurel would live four more years. By the time Stan passed away, on February 23, 1965, Danny—through his weekly variety show—had become a fixture on CBS. Not long after, a photographer who had visited Stan at his apartment several times thought the Tiffany Network should pay a proper, posthumous tribute to Laurel and recruited Van Dyke and other celebrities to convince CBS.

CBS agreed. But instead of showcasing the work of Laurel and Hardy, CBS used only quick, seconds-long clips and instead turned A Salute to Stan Laurel into a variety show featuring dance numbers and a parade of CBS sit-com stars in unfunny skits (from Lucille Ball to Fred Gwynne dressed as Herman Munster). Kaye’s second banana, Harvey Korman, appeared in one sketch as a cop.

Danny was also asked to participate and wisely declined to appear in any sketches. Instead, he consented to briefly reminisce about accepting Laurel’s Oscar and introduce a clip of Stan receiving it. The short bit was reminiscent of the “Sit Down Spot” Kaye would do at the end of each week’s Danny Kaye Show. Though he appeared for less than 60 seconds, Kaye received equivalent billing of those who were cursed with larger parts. The show was widely panned by audiences.

For those interested in Laurel and Hardy and the full story of the awkward variety show tribute, check out the forthcoming book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, which is being launched in a special collector’s edition pre-sale on KickStarter. In fact, those who buy a copy of the new book can also add on Danny Kaye: King of Jesters at a discounted price (see "Me and My Pal" package)! So there is a Santa Claus!