Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Danny the Swinger

Kaye was deadly serious about golf, even though his home course was the Hillcrest Country Club, home of the infamous comedians' roundtable that included Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns, et. al.

With his amazing concentration, perfectionism and athleticism, Danny Kaye was a natural at golf. Yet he didn’t pick up a golf club for the first time until he was in his 30s, during his first trip to Hollywood in 1942.

“When I first came to California,” Kaye recalled to a reporter, “I had never seen a golf course in my life. But I went out one day with (agent) Abe Lastfogel, and he talked me into hitting just one ball. It went 200 yards straight down the middle. I told Abe there was nothing to it. Golf was a game for old men. A few weeks later, I went out on the golf course again and hit the ball only six feet. So I hired a teacher, bought some clubs, and spent six hours a day practicing for five weeks. The first time I played eighteen holes I broke a hundred.”

Actor Benny Baker, whom Kaye brought along from his Broadway show Let’s Face It to play a similar GI role in his first movie, Up in Arms, recalled a typical afternoon with Kaye on the golf course: “I’d call him, he’d say, ‘I’m going to Hillcrest. Want to walk around with me?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ve got noting else to do.’ He was playing golf with Jack Benny and a couple of other people, but he didn’t hear anything. Jack Benny was complaining something happened with the program he was unhappy with, and Danny was just playing the golf. He couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t see anything. He just saw that ball and where he wanted to put it. That’s the difference. That’s a drive that makes anybody a success.”

Kaye was golfing in his typically silent nature another afternoon with Jack Benny, who finally said, “Please talk—it’s so boring!” So Danny gabbed nonstop for the next three holes, until Benny finally yelled, “Oh, shut up!”

One day in Palm Springs, Kaye was playing golf with Benny, Bob Hope, and Charlie Resnick. Danny had been playing terribly that day and was cursing every shot, using only the filthiest words of his vocabulary. Benny tried to quiet him, but Kaye continued with his outbursts. When they arrived at the seventh hole, the group had caught up with a pair of little old ladies and asked if they might play through. With the women waiting, Danny stepped up to tee off. He hit a lousy shot and turned to see his friends watching him with worried looks “Oh, dear!” Danny sighed, as Jack ran away in hysterics. The two women remained confused.

By the late 1950s, Kaye was a five-handicap, regularly shooting in the low 70s. But then he discovered flying and, suddenly, lost all interest in golf. He said it just wasn't mentally challenging enough.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Two Sides of Danny Kaye

Tommy Grasso became a well-regarded PBS television director, but paid his dues in the early 1960s as a cue-card holder at CBS, working on The Danny Kaye Show and The Judy Garland Show. Grasso thought the heavy demands of an hour-long weekly variety show took their toll on Kaye (“He turned into a schmuck”). But, years later, Grasso would reevaluate his opinion.

An April 1964 cooking accident left Danny with a severely burned foot—and a cranky disposition.

As Grasso recalled, “I was a very young kid then. I was working with Barney McNulty, cue cards. One week I’d either work on Kaye or I’d work on Judy Garland. I liked working on Judy Garland, because I got paid more, because in those days she would go til 3:00 or 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, which was a ludicrous thing.

“They always rehearsed across from each other. Kaye was a very hard show to do because everything was on cue cards. The cue cards would be so heavy for all the skits they used to do.

“One night Kaye was cooking spaghetti at (choreographer) Tony Charmoli’s house. The pot boiled over, went onto his foot, and burned it very badly. They couldn’t rehearse at the studio, so we rehearsed up at (Danny’s) house on that show. I went up to his house a—I’m 20, 21 years old—and showed up at his house early. So the houseboy puts me in this, not their living room, but their music room/den-type of situation. I’m sitting there and Danny comes out walking on crutches and smoking a pipe, which he at that particular time started smoking a pipe because that’s when the cancer thing came in with cigarettes, so everybody switched to pipes. And this humungous pipe comes walking out. I was very nervous and very shy, because I didn’t have that much to do with him. I kind of hid anyway. And he stopped, and I stood up and I said, ‘Mr. Kaye, I hope you’re feeling better.’ And he says, ‘What the hell do you care for?’ I was embarrassed.

“The funny thing is almost 17 years later, I was doing a thing for PBS called The Warner Bros. Musical Movies, and I somehow I talked Sylvia Fine into doing it. So I go back up to their house, now 17 years later. Go in. The houseboy puts me in the same room. I swear to God not one piece of furniture was changed, nothing. Out comes Danny, the same bathrobe, and I break out in a cold sweat because I figure, ‘Jeez, he’s gonna get ornery with me again,’ and I hopped right up again and I said, ‘Hello, Mr. Kaye, how are you?’ And he said, ‘Oh, fine.’ Very, very nice. He asked, ‘What are you driving?’ I said, ‘Well, I have a rental car,’ because at that time I was back East working for PBS. He said, ‘Well, you take my wife’s car, because it’s special built for her. She has a bad back.’ I said, ‘Sure, fine.’ He was very, very nice and said, ‘Yes, excuse me, because I have a chef over from France, and I’m in the kitchen…’ Very, very, extremely nice.

“Now I had to take Sylvia down to KOCE (in Huntington Beach). We had a nice studio where we did the thing, and through the course of the evening, I tell her the same story, and she said, ‘Well, that’s Danny. Sometimes he’s a schnook and sometimes he’s not.’ He was a very temperamental man.”

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.