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Our review of A Song Is Born, published May 4th, 2009, is also available.
Four fun, frantic films!
From the very beginning, it was clear that Danny Kaye was destined to be an entertainer. Born to Ukranian Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, Kaye (whose birth name was David Daniel Kaminsky) was a beloved class clown throughout his formative years. Once he graduated, it was on to vaudeville, short films, Broadway (where he got his big break by landing the lead role in a hit show called Lady in the Dark) and finally lavish musicals. Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years takes a look at four the actor's earliest starring roles, giving viewers an opportunity to see what kind of first impression he made on the viewing public.
The collection kicks off with Up in Arms, a 1944 comedy that casts Kaye as an endlessly paranoid hypochondriac who ends up being forced to serve in the U.S. military. It's a modestly enjoyable premise, but what's remarkable is what a capable star Kaye was from the very beginning. He's in full control of his craft in the film, whirring through one dizzying comic setpiece after another with staggering energy. The high point comes midway through, as Kaye delivers a musical number that takes us all the way through a fabricated cinematic melodrama. The actor impresses with his singing voice, rapid-fire delivery, assorted vocal affectations, comic timing and general feverishness, demonstrating in no uncertain terms that he is operating at a level of artistry the rest of the film simply never approaches. Alas, this would prove a familiar story over the course of his career.
Up next is the oddest film of the collection, Wonder Man, which features Kaye in a dual role: he plays the loud-mouthed, showboating stage performer Buster Dingle and Buster's bookish twin brother Edwin. When Buster is shot and killed by gangsters (!), the ghost of the late performer convinces Edwin to pretend to be Buster. Edwin isn't particularly good at mimicking his brother's bluster, so the ghost helps things along by occasionally possessing Edwin in order to give him the energy he needs to pull off a convincing impression. It's a strange, goofy film, but it certainly works as a showcase for Kaye's talent. He's predictably fantastic in his big, whirling moments as Buster (or Edwin-as-Buster), but he's subtly funny as the no-nonsense Edwin, too. Undoubtedly the weirdest of the films included here, but quite possibly the funniest. It also represents the first time Kaye co-starred with Virginia Mayo, who appears in every film in this collection except Up in Arms.
Alternately, the blandest film of the collection is undoubtedly The Kid From Brooklyn, a lackluster comedy that stars Kaye as mild-mannered milkman Burleigh Sullivan. Due to a series of contrived circumstances, Burleigh accidentally manages to involve himself an in incident that concludes with famed boxer "Speed" McFarlane (Steve Cochran, White Heat) getting knocked out. Photographs of the event make it seem as if Burleigh was responsible for the knockout, and soon the milkman finds himself being thrown into a heavily-promoted boxing match with the champion prize fighter. He's nervous initially, but eventually all of the praise the public is heaping on him starts to go to his head. As usual, there are a couple of tremendous showcases for Kaye's musical talents and physical comedy, but the surrounding plot is dull and predictable.
The final film of the collection is A Song is Born, Howard Hawks' musical remake of his own classic screwball comedy Ball of Fire. While Kaye is certainly an odd substitute for Gary Cooper, it generally works well enough (while never quite managing to recapture the magic of its predecessor). While the central character in the original film was working on an encyclopedia of all human knowledge, Kaye's version of the character is working on the humbler task of compiling an encyclopedia of all known forms of music. However, Kaye and his colleagues (one of which is played by Benny Goodman) aren't particularly familiar with this new-fangled "jazz" business, so they decide to do some further research (which leads to a host of fun musical performances). A thin premise, to be sure, but the tunes help compensate for that (jazz/big band icons like Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey and Lionel Hampton play themselves). The downside: Kaye's performance is unusually muted (reportedly due to domestic difficulties he was enduring at the time), and his trademark zeal isn't present very often.
All four films included in Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years have received respectable full frame transfer. All four are in vivid Technicolor, and while there are some scratches and flecks present in each case, they aren't excessive. Generally, these flicks have been better-preserved than many Warner Archive installments, which is a plus given the copious sight gags offered up in each one. All four films have also received Dolby 1.0 Mono tracks, which are crisp, clean and simple. The only supplements included are theatrical trailers for each film.
Danny Kaye: The Goldwyn Years offers a solid overview of the first few years of Kaye's career as a movie star, and three of the four films are genuinely entertaining efforts. While the bare bones treatment is disappointing (a shame these movies had to be a Warner Archive release), the films themselves are worth seeking out.
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