Thursday, December 17, 2015

Danny & Stannie

Danny Kaye stepped up to receive Stan Laurel's special Academy Award, after the comedian fell ill.

Danny Kaye and Stan Laurel didn’t exactly run around in the same circles. Kaye hob-nobbed with the elite in all fields—the finest actors and musicians, nationally known doctors and politicians. Laurel’s closest friends were his fellow screenwriters and other behind-the-scenes show biz folks.

Yet Danny greatly admired Stan’s work and talent, and in the early 1960s was among the many who visited the elderly Laurel at his beachside Santa Monica apartment. There, Laurel would welcome all who called, whether famous admirers like Dick Van Dyke and Marcel Marceau or just plain regular folks who’d always dreamed of meeting their idol.

Stan finally gets his hands on the prize.
In 1961, Laurel was selected to receive an honorary Academy Award, but shortly before the ceremony, he developed a hemorrhage in his left eye. He had Danny Kaye accept the Oscar for him. Soon after, Dick Van Dyke personally delivered the statue to Stan.

(Ironically, one other special Oscar was presented that same year—to Gary Cooper, who was also too ill to attend and had his award picked up by Jimmy Stewart. Four weeks later, Cooper was dead of cancer.)

Laurel would live four more years. By the time Stan passed away, on February 23, 1965, Danny—through his weekly variety show—had become a fixture on CBS. Not long after, a photographer who had visited Stan at his apartment several times thought the Tiffany Network should pay a proper, posthumous tribute to Laurel and recruited Van Dyke and other celebrities to convince CBS.

CBS agreed. But instead of showcasing the work of Laurel and Hardy, CBS used only quick, seconds-long clips and instead turned A Salute to Stan Laurel into a variety show featuring dance numbers and a parade of CBS sit-com stars in unfunny skits (from Lucille Ball to Fred Gwynne dressed as Herman Munster). Kaye’s second banana, Harvey Korman, appeared in one sketch as a cop.

Danny was also asked to participate and wisely declined to appear in any sketches. Instead, he consented to briefly reminisce about accepting Laurel’s Oscar and introduce a clip of Stan receiving it. The short bit was reminiscent of the “Sit Down Spot” Kaye would do at the end of each week’s Danny Kaye Show. Though he appeared for less than 60 seconds, Kaye received equivalent billing of those who were cursed with larger parts. The show was widely panned by audiences.

For those interested in Laurel and Hardy and the full story of the awkward variety show tribute, check out the forthcoming book Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, which is being launched in a special collector’s edition pre-sale on KickStarter. In fact, those who buy a copy of the new book can also add on Danny Kaye: King of Jesters at a discounted price (see "Me and My Pal" package)! So there is a Santa Claus!

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Danny Kaye Holiday Gift Guide

Looking for something special this Christmas for the Danny Kaye fan in your life? You can’t go wrong with any of these 10 great suggestions:

The Court Jester: Original Soundtrack
In teaming with her most accomplished collaborator, Sammy Cahn, Sylvia Fine (Danny’s wife and songwriter) created what to me is her greatest movie work. And the original sountrack contains several songs—“I Live to Love,” “Pass the Basket,” the gorgeous “Where Walks My True Love”—that ended up being cut from the picture. Through its print-on-order system, Amazon has begun reissuing the soundtrack on a 12-track CD. Get it?

Danny Kaye: King of Jesters
This is part biography, but primarily a behind-the-scenes look at Danny at work, filled with stories of making all his wonderful movies, TV and radio shows, audio recordings, and stage performances.
It’s based on 30 years of research and interviews with 50 of Kaye’s closest co-workers and friends, and clears up a lot of the nonsense written in prior books and online.

White Christmas Gift Set  Nine years ago, Turner Classic Movies teamed up with Starbucks to put out a “gift set” combining the White Christmas DVD with a soundtrack CD. Four years later, Paramount Home Entertainment updated the package—putting it in a shiner case, adding a couple of special features to the DVD, substituting music downloads for the CD, and throwing reprints of the lobby card set. The second set is still available from several retailers. It’s a nice package, but if you’re just interested in the movie, there’s a better alternative...

White Christmas: Diamond Anniversary Edition  It seems like every Christmas, a new, re-re-remastered edition of White Christmas would be released, in a slightly different package, with some new but insignificant bell or whistle. There’s now no longer need for any more. Last year’s Blu-Ray release is high-definition perfection. It proudly sits on my shelf next to other beautiful Blu-Rays like Hans Christian Andersen, On the Riviera, Knock on Wood, and On the Double.

The Great Movie Comedians  Repeat showings of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on KTLA-5 started my love of Danny Kaye movies, but this classic book by Leonard Maltin opened my eyes to everything else, beyond the handful of movies reshown.I read that chapter on Danny Kaye over and over again—not to mention Maltin’s spot-on analysis of many of my other favorites, like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers.
This book had been out of print for years, so it’s great to see it finally back in circulation in a new expertly updated edition.

Danny Kaye: Legends  This latest batch of Danny Kaye Show episodes on DVD release is another winner, with six fascinating shows featuring such guests as Lucille Ball, Louis Armstrong, George Burns, Tony Bennett, and Shirley Jones.
This is the third collection of shows released, maintaining the high level set by a collection of Christmas shows (issued in 2012) and a “Best of...” with, among others, the premiere (2014).

White Christmas Shirts  A number of inventive companies are offering T-shirts, blouses and tank tops with White Christmas images on them. Payyand offers shirts with the iconic Santa foursome shot and with the stage play’s logo, but my favorites are the T’s, tanks and hoodies with a logo for “Wallace-Davis Productions.” (Redbubble also has Wallace-Davis logo’ed throw pillows and welcome mats!)
Poster Reprints  Pop Culture Graphics sells colorful print-on-demand reproductions of movie posters, including several Kaye titles (mini-11x17’s of The Court Jester, White Christmas, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and A Song Is Born, plus full-size 27x40 one-sheets of the Man from the Diners Club and—the coolest—White Christmas in Italian). At $10 for an 11x17 or $20 for a 27x40, including shipping, they’re a lot more affordable—and likely more vibrant—than an original.

Danny Kaye Jigsaw Puzzles  Prints Prints Prints offers three different photo jigsaw puzzles featuring Danny—one a handsome portrait, one as Mitty the Kid, and one at a nightclub with Bette Davis. At $34.99, they’re a little pricey, but very cool looking.

Classic Homes of Los Angeles  This stunning coffee table book by architecture expert Douglas Woods showcases fine estates in Southern California, including Danny Kaye’s former home on San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills.
Since the Kayes never invited me over for dinner in Danny’s Chinese kitchen, this is the closest I’ll ever get.

Enjoy the holidays, everyone, and I hope to have another article for you next week!