The Fool and the Assassin
"I'm so delighted that if I were any more delighted I would be in an institution." –Danny Kaye.
As the critic Martin Gottfried has put it, most movie stars are “personalities rather than impersonators.” That is, they don’t act, they play themselves. Danny Kaye, the biggest star of all in the 1940s and 1950s, who would have been 100 last month, was different. He didn’t impersonate—but he didn’t play himself, either. Which was lucky for him, because it meant that instead of owning a part he was free to own an emotion. That emotion was delight, and Danny Kaye owned it like nobody else. He joked, danced, and sang as well as anybody ever has, but his greatest talent was his capacity for joy.
You can see the best example of this gift in The Five Pennies, a forgotten film biography of the jazz trumpeter Red Nichols, in which Kaye gets to do his Louis Armstrong impression—to Louis Armstrong himself, who co-stars. The two of them break into a version of “When the Saints Go Marching In” so ecstatic it demands tears. It starts with a series of puns on the names of classical composers—“Rimsky? Of coursakov!”—and ends with Kaye flapping his arms, his whole body moving like rubber, shouting “beep a beep a beepity beep” at the top of his lungs while Armstrong sings back with gibberish of his own. The song ends, and for a split-second they both look stunned. Then Kaye turns back to the audience and, smiling broadly, screams once more. I would stake my life that that scream wasn’t planned, that it’s an uncontrollable ode to joy. How do I know? Because I’ve watched it about 50 times, and every time it ends I scream too.
This should be his legacy; we should associate delight with Danny Kaye the same way we associate grace with Fred Astaire. But today he doesn’t seem to have a legacy, except perhaps for a general recognition of his special appeal to children, born of his tireless work for UNICEF. Last month saw a few centennial events—a fan-organized film festival in California, a marathon on Turner Classic Movies—and a small exhibit at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. just opened. But for the most part the anniversary went unnoticed.
There is a reason. Kaye, who died in 1988, became a star by live performance, in musicals and variety shows, which were his true love and in which he continued to perform throughout his career. Once he made it into movies, he made very few good ones—about two, actually: The Five Pennies and The Court Jester. Hans Christian Andersen is too sweet for modern tastes, while The Secret Life of Walter Mitty gets its reputation from a handful of classic Kaye numbers, like “Anatole of Paris,” that were borrowed from his stage shows and sutured lazily into the script; as a movie, it barely makes sense. The others—like The Inspector General (Kaye as hapless pauper impersonating a royal representative), On the Double (Kaye as hapless soldier impersonating a British general), and Knock on Wood (Kaye as hapless ventriloquist who loses control of his dummy)—make so little sense, and move so slowly outside the songs for which they’re clearly vehicles, that it’s hard to call them movies at all.
This means that all we have left to appreciate Kaye by are moments (many delivered by YouTube, preserver of small delights). This is strange, because for about 10 years, from 1945 to 1955, he was as big as Sinatra, so big that when he performed in London the royal family, some of whose members he would befriend, came down from the royal box and sat in the orchestra, something they had never done before. (Of most of these performances, tragically, we have no recordings.) But the moments are enough.
There’s one from Knock on Wood that’s a kind of Kaye ur-text—the fool’s dance. Spies who have hidden their nuclear blueprints in Kaye’s ventriloquist’s dummy chase him into a theater. A ballet is about to begin. Kaye slips into a dressing room, and after a moment he emerges disguised in tights and ersatz animal skins. He climbs onto a piece of backstage scenery, which—this being a Danny Kaye movie—promptly gets wheeled out onto the stage.
Kaye is one of three cavemen standing on a boulder, looking down on a beautiful princess and her well-armed retinue. The music swells, all strings and Siberian trills, and the ballet begins. His cavemen friends jump down from the boulder and try to woo the princess with elaborate spinning dances. She waves them off, and points to Kaye. He shakes his head no—and falls onto the stage, where he is surrounded by her guards.
This happens to Kaye in every movie. He’s on stage, he doesn’t know how he got there, and he must dance or die. At this point the artifice of the scene—Kaye playing a ventriloquist playing a ballet dancer playing a caveman—collapses, and the ventriloquist’s fate merges into the caveman’s: they’re different embodiments of the same coward. He has to dance, but what is dancing, and how? So he turns to run, but as he trips and leaps in fear the caveman finds himself doing something that despite its primitive awkwardness looks very much like dancing.
The princess swoons and spins around him. Something in this clumsy creature has moved her. His passion grows, or at least his cowardice lessens, enough for him to softly grab her hand and swing her around. It’s a touching moment, you think. It’s the origin of tenderness. Then you take a mental step back, and there is Danny Kaye, holding a ballerina and dipping her around like a giant piece of fish being dredged through breadcrumbs.
What happens next? The flight instinct returns—run from your emotions, caveman!—and Kaye pivots to check out the spies in the wings just as the princess begins her choreographed fall into his arms. He looks back just in time to see her tip, just in time to panic, to reconsider, to catch her, and to pause for a moment of accidental grace.
Then he dumps her on the ground and sprints offstage.
The scene is as intricate and emotional as real ballet because it is real ballet, the kind you would get if you replaced all the pirouettes with pratfalls and double-takes, but replaced them exactly, and took just as much care to choreograph and practice them. Kaye, as the New York Times dance critic put it, “has a remarkable muscular intelligence” and “would have made a superb ballet dancer.” And the Times understated it. Look at his arm movements, his rhythm, his timing, and his face, which shuttles from moment to moment between grace and mania, provoking in alternation laughter and admiration.
He could easily have done everything straight, if he had chosen to. In The Court Jester’s “Maladjusted Jester” song, he could have cracked people up as much by dancing as by stomping on his own foot and howling. If he’d had better material, material that challenged his extraordinary abilities, he could have done things that hadn’t been done before; talent like that points its own way forward.
I’m reminded of a friend’s treasured saying, picked up from a beloved college professor: “Teaching is above all the controlled public display of delight.” That’s the Danny Kaye secret: in his public enjoyment he teaches you how to enjoy. It’s mystifying that he appeals to children more than adults. Kids spend most of their time delighting in things; it’s the adults who need all the instruction they can get. But maybe that’s it. Think of the boy looking up at his dad to check that he’s laughing too. To a child, there’s nothing better than an adult who knows how to take delight.
That’s what’s at the heart of my response to Danny Kaye. He looks remarkably like my father—the same smile, blue eyes, and curly hair—so that as I watch his movies I sometimes have the feeling I’m watching my father onscreen. They have the same name, David: Danny Kaye was born David Daniel Kaminski, the son of Lithuanian Jews. My father introduced me to Kaye, watching The Court Jester with my brother and me when I was young, and that’s how I respond to Kaye—with the amazement and delight of a kid being entertained by his dad. As it happens, when my dad was a small child himself, growing up in Australia in the 1950s, he saw Danny Kaye perform live. He went to the show with his dad. So maybe he responds to Kaye the same way I do. There’s a photo of my dad at around that age, eyes looking straight into the camera, smiling broadly. He looks exactly the same now, 60 years later.
Here is a small selection of clips from Danny Kaye’s many, many performances.
From The Court Jester, “Vessel with the Pestle:” one of Kaye’s most enduring scenes and most memorable tongue-twisters.
From The Inspector General, “Arrogant/Elegant/Smart:” the way he delivers “a lump, a squeeze, a dribble.”
From The Five Pennies, “When The Saints Go Marching In,” with Louis Armstrong: the greatest duet of all.
“Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians):” he performed this in his first Broadway show, and it made his career.
From The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, “Anatole of Paris:” watch his hands, and wait for the last line. He’s the ancestor of Jim Carrey.
From The Danny Kaye Show, “Havah Nagilah,” with Harry Belafonte: “We have a new leader.”
Dan Kagan-Kans is a program officer at the Tikvah Fund. He lives in New York.