Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: The Worst of Danny Kaye

As wonderful as this Year in Danny Kaye has been, there were a few jeers.
2013 has been an almost perfect year for Danny Kaye fans, as illustrated by yesterday’s list of highlights. Unfortunately, there were a few low lights, as well:

(1) Farewells.
My favorite part of this job is meeting and sometimes befriending the kind folks who consent to my interviews. My least favorite part is losing them. But, particularly considering most of them are in their 70s, 80s or 90s, it’s inevitable. This year, we bid farewell to:

• Johnny Weiner, as part of the Weiner clan that operated the old White Roe Lake Resort in Livingston Manor, N.Y., had been the sole surviving link to Danny’s days in the Catskills.

• Patty Andrews, the last of the Andrews Sisters, and Danny recorded the duet “Orange-Colored Sky” and, joined by her sisters, 10 other singles that marked some of Kaye's finest audio work (including my personal favorite “It’s a Quiet Town.”)

• Bryan Forbes directed Kaye in his final feature film, The Madwoman of Chaillot.

(2) No New Danny Kaye Show Episodes.
Last year's disc featuring two Christmas shows was to be the first of many episodes of Kaye’s 1960s TV variety series to make it on to DVD. Thirteen months and thousands of DVD sales later, we’re still waiting for more.

(3) The Danny Kaye Online Store.
It was wonderful seeing the Danny Kaye Centennial committee able to purchase the domain dannykaye.com and transfer their content from officialdannykaye.com. But a key ingredient was supposed to be an online store, patterned after the one at www.bingcrosby.com, where fans could buy unique Danny Kaye merchandise.

At Crosby's site, you can buy a half-dozen terrific CDs, two DVDs, three books, apparel, Christmas ornaments, even golf balls. So far, the only things you can buy at the Kaye store are a CafePress-style T-shirt and a coffee mug with the Centennial logo slapped on the front. At the very least they should be selling pressed-to-order CDs. Hopefully the store will make it onto the Top Best List in 2014!

Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: The Best of Danny Kaye

2013: The Year in Danny Kaye
An avalanche of wonderful DVD and Blu-Ray releases was the highlight of 2013 for this Danny Kaye fan.

Danny Kaye fans have had plenty to rejoice about this year. There haven’t been this many opportunities to enjoy the performer’s work since before he passed away in 1987.

Here were my Top 10 Danny Kaye highlights of 2013:

(1) DVD Bonanza.
Aside from dozens of low-budget releases of the public domain The Inspector General, Kaye’s movies have never been that accessible on home video. That all changed over the last few months, with the release on DVD of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the four-pack Danny Kaye: Goldwyn Years, a combo Court Jester/Five Pennies disc, and pristine Blu-Rays of Knock on Wood, On the Double, and On the Riviera.
That leaves just two Kaye features unavailable—the sadly neglected Me and the Colonel and the not-so-sadly-neglected Man from the Diners Club.

(2) Library of Congress Website.
 Accessed at www.loc.gov/kayefine, the new Danny Kaye/Sylvia Fine collection website is a godsend for all Kaye fans and researchers. You’ll find recordings of songs, radio shows, short films, rare family photographs, Sylvia’s hand-drawn orchestral scores and typed lyric sheets, scripts, personal letters, and more—without having to make the trip to Washington, D.C.

(3) Dena Kaye’s Tireless Pounding of the Pavement.
Danny and Sylvia’s daughter Dena deserves much of the credit for not only funding the centennial celebration that inspired most of these products and tributes, but also for constantly making herself available for interviews and events. Her energy and her presence are what kept this event—and her dad—in the public eye for so long.

(4) TCM Moviethon.
Turner Classic Movies celebrated Kaye’s birthday with a day-long tribute that did as much as anything to shine a light on his finest work.

(5) The Danny Kaye Show on Sirius Radio.
The private-access radio network has been regularly airing dozens of episodes of Kaye’s old radio series. Many of the programs haven’t been heard since they first aired in the 1940s.

(6) The Traveling Library of Congress Display.
That a sampling of artifacts from the LoC collection was on display in their reading room’s foyer was neat, for the hundreds of visitors who came across it. Even better was when the collection was moved to Los Angeles, where it could be enjoyed by the thousands.

(7) Instant Downloads.
Kaye has definitely arrived in the here and right now. This year, several of his movies became available as instant downloads on iTunes.

(8) The New Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
In making his new film, Ben Stiller intentionally tried to steer clear of Danny’s version, but—considering the movie's high profile—its mere existence should send thousands of fans clamoring to check out the original.

(9) Danny Kaye Film Festival.
Attendance may have been small, but the love for Danny in that conference center was palpable. And they booked a great speaker with a terrific slide show!

(10) The Clicks Keep Coming.
It’s been supremely gratifying to see readers continue to stream to this blog and continue to purchase copies of my book, Danny Kaye: King of Jesters. It shows me that indeed the world has not forgotten about—and still enjoys the work of—Danny Kaye. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Walter Mitty Is for the Birds

Danny heads for a run-in with his fowl friends, who were supposed to have a larger role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

In Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), pigeons are featured throughout the movie, but they’re simply a plot-moving gimmick, giving the screenwriters a device to keep Mitty distracted when he’s supposed to be doing other things at work and to provide a kickstart to Danny’s wacky physical antics.

But in early drafts of the screenplay, the pigeons had a more prominent role and purpose. The birds were supposed to symbolize the freedom and adventure that Mitty secretly longed for.

In an early version of the screenplay, Walter arrives in his office and slides up his window, where several pigeons are waiting on the ledge. He greets them by name and begins feeding them cookies: “Why, Elmer, where have you been? I haven’t seen you for ages. I suppose you took a trip down south, eh? Boy, I bet you saw some sights!”

As he hands out the last cookie from his bag, Mitty leans on the window sill and continues, dreamily, “Yucatan… Trinidad… winging over the blue Caribbean… talking to the parrots in Guatemala… flying down the Rio in the moonlight… up the mysterious Amazon to the towering snow-capped Andes—gee, I bet you had to watch out for those giant eagles! Why they’ve even been known to carry off a man...”

The role of that one particular pigeon—Elmer—is built up to the point where, during the “Anatole of Paris” dream, Mitty imagines his future mother-in-law wearing a ridiculous birdcage-shaped hat, with Elmer inside.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Danny Kaye’s Other Christmas Movie

Danny Kaye nearly played this scene in a flowing white beard and overstuffed red suit.

As the top moneymaker of 1954 and a perennial TV favorite ever since, White Christmas may have become Danny Kaye’s most-remembered movie—but it very nearly wasn’t his first Christmas movie. A decade earlier, Kaye had begun production of another holiday-themed classic—until an on-set injury led to the project losing its festive trimmings.

Back in 1944, Sam Goldwyn put his writers to work preparing a follow-up to Danny’s debut in Up in Arms. Over the first few drafts, the story evolved from Danny playing a bookish genius who disguises himself as a nightclub performer to help solve a murder into making the nightclub performer Danny’s obnoxious twin—who becomes the murder victim—and who returns as a ghost to assist his brother.

Goldwyn, though, didn’t want the story to get too grim, so for draft number 6, he brought in Jo Swerling, a frequent collaborator of All American director Frank Capra. Among Swerling’s suggestions:  re-setting the story at Christmas time. The holidays would be worked into the storyline, most notably during the climax, in which gangsters chase Danny’s bookworm character through a crowded department store.

Swerling and Mel Shavelson scripted a string of comedy sequences, as Kaye tries dodging the hitmen on elevators, hiding out amid a nylons sale, and mixing in with the Goldwyn Girls as models in a fashion show (a scene copied a couple of years later in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). Danny finally swipes a Santa costume and takes the place of St. Nick greeting kids in the toy department. But the gangsters recognize him and start chasing Santa through the store, to the customers’ disbelief. Danny finally makes it into the package room and slides out of the building on a package chute. But the hoods aren’t far behind. On the street, they run up behind Santa and grab him—only to discover it’s a Salvation Army Santa. They look up, and there’s a Santa on every corner.

Danny flees to the nightclub. The gangsters arrive a moment later, but—noticing the DA in the audience—Kaye (still dressed as Santa) bounds on to the stage, in the middle of Vera-Ellen’s dance routine, and makes up a song in which he lyrically reenacts the murder he’s witnessed, playing all the characters himself.

Executives at the studio loved the film’s new holiday overlay so much, they wanted to rename the movie The Christmas Spirit and release it in December. Goldwyn enjoyed the Christmas elements, but thought there were too many holiday pictures all ready. He’d stick with the name Wonder Man. After five more script rewrites, filming began in July 1944, with some Christmas elements—particularly the Santa store chase—intact. Unfortunately, four days into production, Danny severely wrenched his knee finishing up the film’s opening dance number.

With Kaye (and sometimes two of him!) in almost every scene, production had to be shut down for three weeks. During that time, the director brought in gagwriter Phil Rapp to completely revise the screenplay. To save time and money, Rapp cut the entire department store sequence and ultimately all other Christmas references (since, without the Santa finale and with no chance of making a December release date, they were unneccessary).

Swerling would get a supernatural Christmas story filmed, however. Right after working on Wonder Man, he rejoined Capra one final time—to help write It’s a Wonderful Life.