Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Danny Kaye's "First Film" a Fraud


Check most any online film resource for Danny Kaye’s motion picture debut and the answer will come up Moon Over Manhattan, a 1935 short subject produced by Educational Pictures.

This tidbit is confirmed on Wikipedia, IMDB, TCM.com, and more than 16,000 other sites—according to a Google search of “Moon over Manhattan” + “Danny Kaye.” The only problem is that Danny Kaye is not in this movie.

Moon over Manhattan is a 17-minute romantic musical comedy about an advertising illustrator who convinces the woman in the next apartment building to model for him, leading to her being discovered as a singer. As a romantic musical comedy, it has lots of romance, two songs by Sylvia Froos, and lukewarm comedy. But no Danny Kaye.

My suspicion is that few if any of the people and websites who swear Kaye is in the film have ever seen it. Some folks at the Library of Congress have viewed Moon over Manhattan, but remain convinced that Danny’s in it, if for no other reason than their Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine Special Collection (donated by Sylvia and daughter Dena) contains a copy of the movie. Watching the movie, their experts postulated that Danny must have played the part of an extra, since there are two scenes where you see the back of a guy’s head who just might be Danny.

The first suspect appears less than a minute into the movie and we never see his face, as he sits painting with his back to the camera. He looks tall like Danny, but his short hair and the shape of his head don’t seem to match Kaye’s.

In the second scene of Moon over Manhattan, the artist (at center) looks more like Donald O’Connor than Danny Kaye.

The second suspect appears throughout the film’s final scene, as a party guest. His hair is darker and more moppish, like Danny’s, but for one split second he turns to his right and reveals a face that looks nothing like Kaye’s.
The party guest toward lower right looks a little more like Kaye…

… until he turns to the side.

I suppose there’s a one-in-a-billion chance that one of these chaps could be Kaye. But, despite the visual dissimilarities, it also defies logic. These extras received no billing, so there would be no public record that Kaye was in the film.

In addition, Danny was finishing up a year-long vaudeville tour when this movie was filmed in January 1935. (According to personal letters, his troupe began an 11-day engagement in Zanesville, Ohio, in mid-December and was then headed for Chicago.) So he may not have even been in New York by the time filming began.

So where did this erroneous credit come from?

I am convinced that it started with a listing in an old industry trade paper like Motion Picture Herald or Film Daily, since until now everything known about this film mirrored such periodical’s new film announcements:  title, production company, director (Al Christie), release date (Feb. 15, 1935), running time, genre (Young Romance Comedy), stars (Sylvia Froos, Marion Martin, Danny Kaye?), and a brief synopsis (“A country boy becomes an artist.”)

Evidently, some well-meaning researcher reprinted this listing online somewhere and it spread from there. Most likely, our intrepid researcher was compiling a list of Educational credits, mixed up his notes, and accidently typed “Danny Kaye” in place of “Warren Hull,” the actual romantic lead of the Moon over Manhattan. (After all, Kaye’s first film was made for Educational, but nearly three years later:  Dime a Dance starring Imogene Coca.)

Or, less likely but still possible, the trade paper did list “Danny Kaye” in the cast, whether by bizarre error (Kaye was a relative unknown at the time, even more unknown than the typical star of an Educational short) or perhaps he was supposed to be in the movie, but ended up being replaced (note that the purported synopsis also differs from the actual plot).

Okay, you reluctantly admit, that all makes sense. Except for one thing: How did a copy of Moon over Manhattan end up with the personal items Sylvia donated to the Library of Congress? Aha! Why would Kaye have owned a copy of this movie (along with his other four Educational shorts) if he wasn't in it?

My guess is that the video held by the Library of Congress, like several other pieces in the collection, wasn’t included in the materials originally donated by Sylvia, but rather something the library already possessed. I suspect they duped it and added a copy to the Kaye collection on their own, to be as complete as possible. Just a little too complete.

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