2013 marked the one-hundredth birthday of Danny Kaye, an entertainer whose career spread from the Borscht Belt to Broadway to film, radio, and television, and whose extracurricular activities included ping-pong, Chinese cooking, orchestra conducing, flying airplanes, and pioneering work with UNICEF. Yet the year-long celebration of Kaye’s centenary is almost entirely due to the tireless efforts of his daughter Dena. Although most of his filmography is finally available for home viewing, the lion’s share comes via Warner Archives, an made-on-demand service for obscure titles not popular enough to warrant a wide release. His most popular starring vehicle, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), has been remade as a blockbuster movie, but to no revival of interest in the original. And a recent festival screening of his films was noticeably under-attended. How is it that the man Walter Kerr once called “the greatest entertainer since Jolson” has become an obscurity to today’s generation? That’s not to say Kaye has been completely forgotten; his co-starring role in the rightly beloved holiday perennial White Christmas (1954) has ensured him some measure of immortality, and his children’s albums remain favorites among families even today. Yet Kaye’s storied career has produced very little in the way of serious analysis, criticism, or even idolatry. He remains something of a cult figure, and even then not among cinephiles and film critics, but mostly among theatre nerds and their grandparents. It’s a troubling circumstance that needs rectifying, because Danny Kaye is one of the few comedy auteurs of the sound era, and his work warrants the attention of anyone seriously interested in the business of not being serious.
Kaye first came to moviegoers’ attention via a series of musicals for producer Samuel Goldwyn in the 1940s, but he didn’t really come into his own until the following decade when he formed Dena Productions (named for his daughter) with the aim of making films that took better advantage of his skills as a performer. This act in and of itself reveals an auteur’s concern and control over his work, and the films reveal a fixation on identity and duality. These are common subjects for screen clowns, but Kaye brings to them a complexity and wit that is uniquely his own, playing on the idea of hidden depths, and the difference between a layered, multifaceted personality and a duplicitous one. In Wonder Man (1945) he plays an introverted bookworm and his twin brother, an extroverted nightclub entertainer who periodically possesses him as a ghost in order to bring his own killer to justice. In Merry Andrew (1958) Kaye is a buttoned-up archaeologist who finally finds his calling as a circus clown after a lifetime of being stifled under his father’s oppressive thumb. Knock On Wood (1954) finds him as a ventriloquist involuntarily expressing his true feelings through his dummy before being mistaken first for a spy, then for a killer, and then forced to impersonate an Irishman, an English motorist, and finally a ballet dancer. The Court Jester (1955) has Kaye undercover at the palace, mistaken for an assassin, hypnotized into being a dashing rogue, knighted by the king, mistaken for an outlaw, and hypnotized again before the film is through. And Kaye isn’t the only one to wear many hats. The captain played by Glynis Johns in The Court Jester longs to express the femininity she’s forced to suppress as a rebel soldier, and later must pretend to be the king’s wench while in the court, while Mai Zetterling’s psychiatrist goes through a similar character arc in Knock On Wood. The villains, by contrast, are deceitful, using alternate identities as weapons rather than dabbling in Kaye’s cornucopia of personalities and occupations. Certainly this all functions as a device for Kaye to entertain us, to trot out a litany of accents, physicalities, tongue-twisters, and songs in his own inimitable manner. Yet the pattern seems too great, the plots too elaborate for this to be a mere contrivance.
Danny Kaye looks at the complex psychology of the human mind and has the courage to laugh, to see the joy and absurdity of the many roles we play in our lives. These films celebrate our ability to choose who we are. While it would be a mistake to overlook Kaye’s many collaborators – particularly Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, the writing-producing-directing team behind Knock On Wood and The Court Jester, and Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine, who helped choose his projects and contributed songs to nearly all of his feature films – there’s no denying that the films of Danny Kaye are united by his own distinct voice. It’s a voice well worth hearing, and a hundred and one years after his birth, it seems about time we started talking about him.