Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Danny & The Censors
Danny Kaye was a notoriously G-rated comedian. Although he was known to use colorful language off-stage, he refused to perform any blue material in front of an audience. In fact, for years he turned down lucrative offers to take his one-man stage show to Las Vegas nightclubs, out of fear that his fans would think he was up to something not fully wholesome.
His screenwriters, however, occasionally tried to slip racier material into his movies. Yet, every script and every song lyric first had to make it past the censors at the Production Code Administration.
Danny’s writers first tangled with the PCA on his second movie, Wonder Man (1945). The movie was originally supposed to end in two bridal suites (Edwin and Ellen’s, Monte and Midge’s) on their wedding nights, when the ghost of Buzzy appears. The censors objected to the actors’ wardrobe (negligees and pajamas), location (hotel bedrooms), and three words of dialogue by Ellen (“... maybe even tonight.”). They insisted the actors be fully dressed, the action moved outside to the balconies, and the suggestive line deleted. The writers refused and resubmitted the scene with no changes. Again, the censors objected. In the end, the writers cut Monte and Midge, and softened Ellen’s line—although she remained in a nighty, in the bedroom.
The PCA also protested with an early draft of The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) contained the word “jerk”—which was on the group’s list of forbidden words. The writers had figured it was okay, because Danny performed it in a heavy Swedish accent. They ended up cutting the whole bit.
One version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)—freshly rewritten by James Thurber—incorporated a “firing squad daydream,” with dialogue straight from Thurber’s original short story. The PCA deemed unacceptable Mitty’s scornful command to his executioners—“to hell with the handkerchief.” In the end, the filmmakers would cut not only the line, but the entire firing squad sequence, all the other dreams Thurber added, and basically everything else Thurber had tried to work into the script.
For The Inspector General (1949), Sylvia Fine wrote a song called “Sililoquy for Three Heads,” in which Kaye seeks counsel from three visages—an arrogant Danny (Russian), an elegant Danny (Englishman), and a smart Danny (Viennese). The censor board, however, misunderstood one of her lyrics for flipping off the audience. Sylvia had to explain that “Give ’em the finger!”—as the Viennese Danny delicately extended his index finger to the side of his nose—represented his thoughtful attitude.
The censor battles came to a head during On the Riviera (1951), as detailed more fully in the new book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters. The film was designed as an adult romantic comedy, built around infidelity, so conflict was inevitable. The writers filled their scripts with so many double entendres that some of them made it through to the final film.
Starting with Danny’s very next film, Hans Christian Andersen (1952), the notes from the PCA stopped. Perhaps by this time, as Danny began to be more closely identified with children, he and Sylvia had themselves begun to self-police the scripts? Or maybe times were changing, as the situations in On the Double (1961) were every bit as racy as those of On the Riviera.