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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.

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Pamela on February 18, 2013 at 7:14 am (Reply)
Please add to the must see list,Choreography from White Christmas....the reprise of Sisters with Der Bingster isn't bad either.....
Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW on February 18, 2013 at 8:41 am (Reply)
Many of Danny Kaye's most popular musical numbers were written by his wife, Sylvia Fine (Kaye). The theater at Hunter College, NYC, is named for them (she graduated from there). Even in his later years, he acknowledged that he owed his career to her. Reading a biography of Danny Kaye will show many more sides to the man than you'll ever see on screen.
Murray ARONSON on February 18, 2013 at 8:58 am (Reply)
Yes Danny Kaye's centennial was for the most part unnoticed. There were no retro-
spectives of his career at the American Cinematheque, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, UCLA, USC, Los Angeles Co Museum of Art, the usual suspects as far as I know. There was only a feeble one put on by fans in Pasadena.
I'm talking about the Los Angeles area. Even though Kaye was a supporter of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an honorary director for years, he hasn't been remembered. Kaye has joined Paul Muni and Eddie Cantor, among other in a kind of
amnesia. In Kaye's case there has been a massive change in taste. It didn't help
that the formidable Pauline Kael did not care for Danny Kaye and she guided many
people in their taste, me included. One Kaye movie which I saw with my Mother, has been overlooked and was one of the first that was Holocaust related, although
tangentially, was ME AND THE COLONEL, based on the Franz Werfel play. It came out around the same time as THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK which I also saw with my Mother at the same art house cinema.
Sylvia Horwich on February 18, 2013 at 8:59 am (Reply)
What about "Up in Arms"?
HZT on February 18, 2013 at 9:07 am (Reply)
This is a wonderful ode to Danny. Besides The Five Pennies - which I remember well from childhood - my other recollection is that for many years he hosted the annual broadcast of The Wizard of Oz. I don't remember if it was a national broadcast or on a local channel in New York, but he intro'd the movie and then appeared at various break points as well. His "comments" were almost as enjoyable as the movie for a child of 8 or 9 years.
Sheldon Dan on February 18, 2013 at 10:27 am (Reply)
I attended a seminar where a math professor showed us clips of mathematics references in TV and movies. A couple of them involved Danny Kaye, and I think his professor's treatment of the Pythagorean theorem ("the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the squares of the two adjacent sides") is one of my favorites.

If your readers are interested, they might find more information at
sharon on February 18, 2013 at 11:12 am (Reply)
Thank you SO much... not only for the loving tribute to Danny Kaye, who was always a favorite of mine, but for talking about and then posting the piece from The Five Pennies which I had never seen before! I will keep it to replay it over and over again..... screaming is definitely required at the end! Thank you again for the article and for gathering the clips.
Mack Hall on February 18, 2013 at 12:10 pm (Reply)
What a beautiful remembrance of a good man! Thank you!
jobardu on February 18, 2013 at 5:02 pm (Reply)
You forgot "Me and the Colonel" a classic where Kaye does a manic zen (there is no other way to describe it) dialog with a Nazi colonel that goes something like "there are two possibilities... you can get killed or you can make it to the next place, where you will have two possibilities..." It is wise and funny and I use the wisdom to this day regarding hard choices and outcomes.
Donnie on February 18, 2013 at 8:04 pm (Reply)
From one Danny Kaye admirer to another - thank you for this article. His multi-faceted artistry was unique - that's why Hollywood had so much trouble finding appropriate screen vehicles for him. I'm so glad you mentioned The Five Pennies. I thought I was the only one who treasured this movie. For years I sang my kids to sleep with the wonderful lullabies from it - penned by Sylvia Fine. I also remember Me and the Colonel, a brilliant unforgettable movie where he plays a Jewish refugee opposite Curt Jurgens, as the German officer. I have searched unsuccessfully for a dvd of this movie for some time.
Murray ARONSON on February 18, 2013 at 8:55 pm (Reply)
The colonel of ME AND THE COLONEL is a Polish officer, although the actor is the
German Curt Jurgens who played a lot of Nazis. Who wrote the manic zen? Remember
that ME AND THE COLONEL was based on JACOBOWSKY AND THE COLONEL by Franz Werfel.
Just like TSCHAIKOWKSY was written by Ira Gershwin to Kurt Weill's music and is in
a line of patter songs that starts with Donizetti and Gilbert and Sullivan.
raykaufm on February 19, 2013 at 8:42 am (Reply)
To Jobardu, The Colonel wasn't a Nazi. He was a Polish officer escaping, along with Jakobowski (Kaye's character) from occupied Poland. The Colonel's recurring line was "Less and less I like this Jakobowski." Until the end when they finally reach safety. He says, " More and more I like this Jakobowski!" Kaye sings "Anu Banu Artza" throughout the movie.
    jobardu on February 20, 2013 at 7:32 am (Reply)
    Raykaufm, Murray Aronson, and Donnie:
    Thanks for the clarifications on "Me and the Colonel". I'm a bit surprised a movie this good and valuable isn't available on DVD. I'm going to email Netflix and ask if they can get a copy. It could well be off copyright by now.

    The "manic zen" part referred to situations like the one where they are at a bridge they have to get across. The Colonel is worried that it is mined and that there is a sniper covering the bridge. Jakobowski says, in Danny Kaye rapid-fire patter, something like 'There are two possibilities, either we will be killed, in which case there is nothing to worry about, or we will make it across successfully, in which case we also will have nothing to worry about.So there is nothing to worry about.'. After a couple of these the exchange became imprinted on my young brain and brought many a smile and nod throughout my life.
Diana Lipton on February 19, 2013 at 11:49 am (Reply)
This wonderful tribute to Danny Kaye resonated for me on many unexpected levels. At about 4pm on Sunday 25th November 2007 a friend from LA sent me an email headed 'Wonderful YouTube'. I was sitting at home at my desk in Cambridge, England, about to go for a run, but I delayed to watch the clip. It was Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong singing 'When the Saints Go Marching In', and it was beyond wonderful. I watched it a few times -- it's instantly addictive -- and forwarded it to my husband Peter Lipton, who was working in his office at Cambridge University's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, getting ready to leave for a squash game. We spared each other most forwarded YouTube links, but I knew that Peter would enjoy this one. His mother Lini -- not in general a popular music fan -- loved Danny Kaye, and watching this particular routine, I realized for the first time that Peter and Danny had something in common (though not singing and dancing!). After a few minutes Peter called me about our dinner plans. I didn't ask him if he'd watched the clip, and I'll never know for sure. Two hours later, when I was back at home after my run, I got a call from the squash club. Peter had fainted, the receptionist said, and could not cycle home. Would I pick him up? When I got there, Peter was walking towards me, pale and drenched with sweat. I asked him if he was OK to get in the car, and -- typically -- he said that he was fine. Then he collapsed against a wall and within half an hour he had died of a heart attack, aged 53 and seeming so much younger. During the course of the next year, when I felt strong enough to bear the pain, I watched Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong. In November 2008 we held a memorial service at King's College Cambridge, where Peter had been a Fellow. Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, opened the proceedings. Marc Saperstein led us in Ma'ariv and El Malei Rachamim. The Dante Quartet reprised a piece, Elgar's Piano Quintet, from the last concert that Peter and I had attended together. Olivia Ray sang three poems by Miroslav Holub, set for the occasion by Andrew Lovett. Liba Taub read extracts from Peter's contributions to the Ask Philosophers website. And many of Peter's friends, colleagues and students, together with our sons Jacob and Jonah, spoke movingly about Peter and his life. Almost all the speakers highlighted Peter's incredible joie de vivre and his wonderful gift for teaching. Someone explained that -- reversing the norm -- Peter's university lectures were progressively better attended as the term went on; students brought their friends and even their parents to share the magic (technical philosophy of science). Someone else mentioned that Peter routinely received standing ovations at the end of term, and on one famous occasion his students showered him with roses. Whether addressing Fellows of the Royal Society, Cambridge University undergraduates, or ten-year-olds at Hebrew School, Peter was the most charismatic and effective teacher that most people had ever encountered. From the moment I began to plan Peter's Memorial Service, I knew how it would end: with Danny and Louis singing 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. I included a line in the service booklet explaining briefly what could easily have seemed inappropriate, incongruous, or at least an odd choice. Dan Kagan-Kans's account of the connection between Danny Kaye, joy, pedagogy, and his own late father has helped me to understand so much better why I made it.
Dan Kagan-Kans on February 19, 2013 at 1:02 pm (Reply)

Your husband sounds like an amazing person. I just looked him up, and found the phrase "The pedagogy of exuberance" used to describe his teaching. I wish I could have taken a class with him. And it's a perfect way to describe Kaye as well.

I should add that my father is very much alive and well!

Diana Lipton on February 19, 2013 at 4:05 pm (Reply)
Thank you so much, and apologies to your dad: ad meah esrim. Diana
Arn Pressner on February 19, 2013 at 7:48 pm (Reply)
You also seem to have forgotten Merry Andrew and Hans Cristian Andersen.
Dan Moisture on February 20, 2013 at 11:54 am (Reply)
I've never heard of Danny Kaye, but I am excited to read/watch/listen to his work. Great article Dan. I can picture you coyly smiling to yourself and suddenly laughing out loud to the bemusement of your colleagues.

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