Monday, November 25, 2013

Thanksgiving Special: Danny Kaye Chows Down

Elsa Lanchester looks on as Danny Kaye finally performs his "Busy Eater" routine in The Inspector General.

Although Danny Kaye never wrote his own material for his movies, he did dream up a collection of dialects, characters and routines to amuse his friends that ended up inspiring his screenwriters (the most famous being his “surgery scat” that his wife Sylvia Fine used as the basis for “Melody in 4-F,” which made it into his first movie, Up in Arms).

The head writer on his first three movies was Don Hartman, one of Danny’s closest pals, who was intimately familiar with Kaye’s formal and informal material. Consequently, Hartman was always trying to work Danny’s bits into his storylines. Another chum was Phil Rapp (creator of radio’s The Bickersons and Baby Snooks), who was brought in on Kaye’s first six movies to doctor the scripts (i.e., to add as many gags as possible).

For The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), Rapp hoped to include Danny’s “Busy Eater” routine. Kaye, a serial mocker, thought the act up one night while dining with friends at a Chinese restaurant. Sitting nearby was a man energetically filling his face without taking a breath. Kaye was so intrigued by his eating style that he spontaneously began imitating the customer. From then on, Danny could send friends into convulsions whenever he sat down at a dinner table.

Unfortunately, the bit was a poor match for the Kid from Brooklyn storyline and was dropped. But two years later, Rapp tried again, slipping it into a rewrite for A Song Is Born. Once again, the plot had to be stretched too far to create a situation in which Kaye’s character is so starved that he pigs out in fast motion.

A year later, however, Rapp got his golden opportunity. The script that he was brought in to doctor for The Inspector General already contained a scene in which Danny’s character is starving and is treated to a feast by the unsuspecting townspeople. The set-up was waiting for him! Finally, Kaye could be filmed maniacally chewing, chugging, cutting, buttering and seasoning for posterity.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Danny Kaye: King of Klutzes

A dozen members of the cast and crew were injured during the production of The Court Jester, including Kaye and several pint-sized co-stars.

One of the most surprising discoveries I made in conducting research for my recent book Danny Kaye: King of Jesters was that Kaye, for such a graceful performer, was a magnet for injury. He suffered countless breaks, bumps, scrapes, cuts, tears and twists on the job, many of them detailed in the book.

But at least he had company, as fellow performers—primarily dancers and stuntmen in his movies—experienced their fair share of injuries. Not unexpectedly, the two films that racked up the most accident reports were the one with the most elaborate dance sequence (Knock on Wood, with its ballet climax) and the one with the most elaborate stunts (The Court Jester).

During the production of Knock on Wood, in addition to Kaye cutting and bruising his knee in the shower scene, a stand-in stepped on a nail, choreographer Michael Kidd was struck by a “fake-flower wire,” a dancer injured his wrist taking falls, another dancer skinned her knee, and yet another ballerina complained of a “splinter injury.” The worst fate befell dancer Pat Denise (who played Danny’s mother in flashback), who pulled her calf muscle while rehearsing the title song dance number. Kaye personally drove her to the doctor, who advised Denise to stay off the ankle for a while, shutting down production and delaying filming for more than three weeks.

The cast and crew of The Court Jester sustained roughly a dozen injuries, several of them suffered by the acrobatically inclined midgets. One wee actor, while rehearsing a scene in a tree, struck his head on a protruding stump. More seriously, as another midget was rehearsing sliding down a rope, his left leg struck his right leg as he tried to make a “false landing,” sending him tumbling. He tried to break his fall with his left hand, and ended up breaking his left wrist and his left ankle.