Monday, November 08, 2004

His Horse, Of Course, Is a Baritone Too

Bill James once wrote about a particular baseball team that its lesson was "that you can, in fact, have too much pitching": if a team has too many promising pitchers, what happens is that the manager can't decide which ones to use and the team becomes unstable. Well, I think the lesson of Danny Kaye is that a performer can, in fact, have too much talent. The word "multitalented" -- or is that two words? -- is practically synonymous with Kaye; the guy could do just about anything, including some things that hardly anybody else was doing at the time (super-fast patter singing, for example, a style he sort of borrowed from Gilbert and Sullivan but made his own). Like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, he went to Hollywood after starring in a hit Broadway show (Let's Face It, music and lyrics by Cole Porter). But unlike Astaire and Kelly, he didn't star in a lot of enduring, great movie musicals; his portfolio consists of one all-time favorite, The Court Jester, plus a lot of other movies that now come off as very uneven.

In part this was because of who Kaye signed with: Samuel Goldwyn, the most successful and overrated independent producer in the business. At the time, Goldwyn's name was a watchword for prestige, but now a lot of his movies look very creaky (especially most of the films made by his star director, William Wyler), characterized by a slow pace and an excess of good taste. In the '30s, Goldwyn's big comedy star was Eddie Cantor. Goldwyn saw in Kaye someone who was comparable to Cantor as a singing comedian, and someone whose range of talents could carry a picture. What Goldwyn did, basically, was to turn Kaye into the new Eddie Cantor; his first movie, Up in Arms, was loosely based on the Cantor vehicle Whoopee. And after that, Kaye usually played the same character Cantor had played in the '30s: a sweet, nebbishy guy who gets menaced by big bad guys. Sometimes, for a change, Goldwyn would skip the neo-Eddie-Cantor stuff and put Kaye in a remake of something else, e.g. A Song is Born, a musical remake of Ball of Fire with Kaye very much miscast in the Gary Cooper role. The writing and direction on most of these movies was not usually of a very high standard; nor were the casts (headed by Goldwyn's leading lady of choice, Virginia Mayo -- who did her best work after she got away from Goldwyn). The movies looked good, what with the high budgets and Gregg Toland's photography, but they were, like Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor films, innocuous, creaky family-friendly projects that seemed to embalm a talented performer rather than showing him off. The ultimate Kaye/Goldwyn movie in this respect is The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which takes a good idea for a movie, James Thurber's story, takes out everything that made it a good idea in the first place, and replaces it with a lot of not-so-good ideas.

But some of the trouble with Kaye's movies has to do with Kaye himself. In a sense, it was inevitable that he'd wind up playing characters originated by other actors -- Eddie Cantor, Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier (On the Riviera, made for Fox, is a remake of a Chevalier movie) -- because he really didn't have a character of his own. His fame came from his ability to shift from one character to another, to be everybody at once; his greatest routine, "The Lobby Number," written by his wife/associate Sylvia Fine, features him describing a movie and becoming all the characters in it, from Cowboy Dan to Carmelita Perpita, The Bolivian Bombshell. But an ability to be everybody at once, left unchecked, becomes a tendency to be nobody. And a screen comic, as opposed to someone performing in sketches or nightclubs, needs to have a well-defined personality, because, cliche though it may be, the best film comedy is character comedy, comedy that comes from the reaction of a distinctive character to a distinctive situation.

Bob Hope, by most standards less gifted than Kaye, created a character who can get laughs because of the appropriateness of the way he reacts to the problems he faces; we know he's a coward and a braggart, and when he displays these characteristics, it's both funny and appropriate to the story: character and schtick fused into one. But Kaye is always bouncing from one character to another, sometimes literally, since he frequently played two roles or one guy who takes on multiple personalities (as in The Court Jester). It's hard to know whether his schtick is appropriate to his character, because we don't fully know what his character is; when he's not playing another comedian's character (mostly Cantor), he's the hero's nightclub-entertainer brother, or he's a womanizing Frenchman. And so his routines, brilliant though some of them are, distract from the movie, because they're not an opportunity to escape into a different persona: they're yet another switch by a guy who keeps switching personalities, and whose basic persona is never quite defined. When Daffy Duck does a Danny Kaye routine in the cartoon Book Revue (available on the new DVD set), mimicking Kaye's rapid swings from Russian-accented sentimentality to wild scat routines, it's in many ways funnier than the real thing -- not only because Mel Blanc can do this kind of thing almost as well as Kaye did, but because we know who Daffy is; he is a well-defined character (or was before his mid-'50s identity crisis), and in him we see a familiar character going wild, rather than, as with Kaye, a talented performer going wild to distract us from the central unanswered question: who is this guy?

Kaye clearly had some problems with sticking to a character. This was mocked early in his career when he appeared on Jack Benny's radio show; Kaye has been selected to play the lead in The Jack Benny Story (upsetting Jack, who thought that was his part), and when asked to play the young Jack Benny, Kaye goes through a series of silly accents depending on where the scene takes place:

(Thinking it takes place in Russia)
"Papa, can I have fifty roubles for to buying a wiolin?"

(Told that it actually takes place in Illinois
"Hey, pop, can I but the bite on yer fer fifty frogskins t' buy a fiddle?"

This portrayal of Kaye -- as an incredibly talented guy who can't give up schtick long enough to play a character -- was definitively proven toward the end of his career, when he played Noah on Broadway in Richard Rodgers' Two By Two; he started out playing it more or less straight, but as time went on (and particularly after he suffered a fracture that forced him to play much of the run in a wheelchair) he started turning the whole thing into an excuse for him to ad-lib, try to throw the other actors off, and, one night, scream obscenities at the actor playing one of his sons.

Kaye's best movie is The Court Jester, though it doesn't come all that much closer to solving the problem of "Who is Danny Kaye?" What makes it work, apart from the excellent script and supporting cast, is that the film is basically a genre spoof -- the ancestor of Blazing Saddles and Airplane, though in '50s-style good taste -- and therefore there's not much need for a rounded character in the main part; all that's needed is someone like Robert Hays in Airplane!, a guy who can do jokes and be, generically, the Lead Character. It's odd that a comedy performer as distinctive as Danny Kaye should wind up as a generic comic lead, or a last-minute replacement for another performer (Kaye replaced Donald O'Connor in White Christmas, which is why most of his songs are about dancing). One wonders what kind of movies he'd have made if he'd just stood still long enough to develop a real character for himself. But then, Sam Goldwyn might not have stood for that.


Anonymous said...

Danny Kai-t én is szerettem. Jó komikus volt, több filmjét láttam.

Anonymous said...

Nem jól írtam a nevét: Daany Kaye. OK.

Anonymous said...

Talán most sem jól írtam: Danny Kaye. Na most jól sikerült, ennyivel tartozom neki.