Give Judge Bryan Pope the five pennies, he'll give you Red Nichols.
Our review of The Court Jester / The Five Pennies, published January 5th, 2014, is also available.
This little penny is to wish on
Nominated for four Oscars in 1959, but largely forgotten since, The Five Pennies is a rousing, joyful, sentimental biopic that deserves to be rediscovered on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Jazz musician Loring "Red" Nichols (Danny Kaye) tries to reconcile his passion for music with his love for his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and polio-stricken daughter.
To call funnyman Danny Kaye the mid-20th century's Clown Prince of Showbiz would be understating the case. With his Silly Putty features, bottomless well of energy, manicVaudeville-style, and milk-it-for-all-it's-worth approach to entertainment, Kaye was always an exhausting life force to be reckoned with, and best taken in small doses.
So it was with great reluctance and low expectations that I sat down with The Five Pennies, Kaye's 1958 musical that was "suggested by the life" of unsung jazz legend Loring "Red" Nichols. Never heard of him? Me neither. Turns out he was largely responsible for jumpstarting the careers of many jazz luminaries (Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey all played under him) before falling into relative obscurity.
It took only 15 minutes for me to realize that a different, more human side of Kaye is at play here. At last, Kaye scales down his natural energy to convincingly play a brilliant, conflicted cornet player with equal parts passion and compassion. (The real Red Nichols provided the pipes, but you'd never know it by watching Kaye.)
With The Five Pennies, Kaye was blessed with a touchingly downsized, sweetly simple parable about the price of creation and the danger of pitting career against devotion to the people you love. It's a story about how the oh-so-complicated game of life can feel as improvised as freeform jazz, and sometimes you just gotta forget what you know and play, man.
Kaye was also blessed with Melville Shavelson, a director who knew how to draw tender, nuanced performances from his actors and amp up the style only when the story called for it (the early Harlem nightclub scenes are bathed in warm reds and cool blues, and check out the nifty transition device involving a revolving LP and the rotating wheel of a tour bus).
Shavelson makes sure Kaye hits every note pitch-perfect, guiding him to the best, most exquisitely crafted performance of his career. Kaye's comic shtick and weird facial tics are still in plain view. But this time they're tempered by an endearing, multi-faceted character who, in the third act, possesses a never-to-be-expressed current of regret. Kaye's Nichols is not the perfect husband, and he's worlds away from being a responsible parent. The only time he approaches perfection is when he's clutching that cornet. But he also never loses hope that he can change. Neither does his wife, Bobbie (played with such warm-hearted goodness by the lovely Barbara Bel Geddes in one of her precious few leading roles), and his worldly daughter, Dorothy (played first by a heartbreaking Susan Gordon and, later, by a soft-spoken and sensible Tuesday Weld).
Make no mistake that this is a musical, with much of the wall-to-wall music contributed by songwriter Sylvia Fine. In a film with countless musical high points, the peak is Kaye's "When the Saints Go Marching In" duet with the inimitable Louis Armstrong (playing himself as no one else ever could), a number that transcends the film and, if you'll forgive the hyperbole, soars into the stratosphere of cinematic legend. It's just that good. But that's not to dismiss the many other fine moments, particularly Fine's poignant title tune, which is played first as a novelty number before being reprised in the gut-wrenching, up-on-your-feet finale. Keep a hanky handy.
But for all its raise-the-rafters numbers and rich visuals, the film's greatest contribution to our cinematic heritage is helping the great Kaye, that Clown Prince of Showbiz, find the humanity not only in a music legend, but in himself. Folks, don't miss it.
For its DVD debut, Paramount gives The Five Pennies a gorgeous transfer that beautifully preserves the film's luscious hues and original widescreen presentation. The Dolby 5.1 surround is surprisingly robust, which is a blessing during the film's many musical sequences. The package includes English subtitles, but a deplorable lack of extras.
I simply cannot recommend this film highly enough. It's a treat, a treasure, and, quite simply, thrilling.
All is forgiven, Danny Kaye. You are free to go.
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