Danny Kaye: Animated on Film and Spoofed in Animation
By Ed Garea
Edited by Steve Herte
Up In Arms (Goldwyn/RKO, 1944) – Director: Elliott Nugent. Cast: Danny Kaye, Dana Andrews, Dinah Shore, Constance Dowling, Louis Calhern, Elisha Cook, Jr., Lyle Talbot, and Margaret Dumont. Color. 105 minutes.
Book Revue (WB, 1946) – Director: Bob Clampett. Voices: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck/Big Bad Wolf/Henry VIII/Cop/Sailor/Cuckoo/Mice), Bea Benaderet (Bobby-Soxer/Woman on “Freckles” cover/various screams), Sara Berner (Henry VIII’s mother/Swooning Bobby-Soxers). Color. 7 minutes.
The year 1944 saw the birth of a new musical star on film. He was Danny Kaye and he did not come into movies unprepared. Born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, he began his career as an entertainer shortly after the death of his mother while in his early teens. He dropped out of high school and went to Florida with a friend, where he worked as a busker. Returning to Brooklyn, his father decided not to pressure his son to find a job, leaving it to young Daniel to follow his muse. While still in his teens, Kaye worked as an entertainer in the “Borscht Belt,” the resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains. He perfected an act as an emcee that interacted with his audience between introducing other acts.
His first break in the business came as one of “The Three Terpsichoreans,” a vaudeville dance act. With them he toured the Far East, but when he came back to America the act could not find work and Kaye had to work hard for bookings. One of his jobs was in a burlesque act with fan dancer Sally Rand, making sure her fans were always held in front of her.
In 1935, Kaye managed to once again land a job in the Catskills, and signed with New York-based Educational Pictures, a low-budget outfit famous for its two-reel comedies, which were released through 20th Century Fox. Kaye debuted in Moon Over Manhattan (1935), and went on to star in a number of two-reelers for the company, usually playing a manic, fast-talking Russian. Educational Pictures went bankrupt after Fox failed to renew their contract and a short-lived attempt to produce feature-length films with Grand National turned out to be a dream. Kaye returned to the Catskills but shortly after auditioned for and won the lead in the Broadway show The Straw Hat Revue. Sylvia Fine was the show’s pianist, lyricist and composer. The show closed after only 10 weeks, but Kaye was around long enough to be noticed by critics. He also formed a lifelong bond with Sylvia Fine when they married shortly after the show’s closure.
The reviews were glowing enough for Kaye and Sylvia to be booked at La Martinique, an upscale New York City nightclub on West 57th Street. It was there playwright Moss Hart saw the act and signed Kaye for his new show, Lady in the Dark, starring Gertrude Lawrence. Though Lawrence was the star, Kaye brought down the house in his role as fashion photographer Russell Paxton with his patter song “Tchaikovsky (and Other Russians)” in which he dashed through the names of 50 Russian composers in only 39 seconds or so. He became a star, and the next season headlined a smash musical about a young man who has been drafted entitled Let’s Face It!
It wasn’t long before Hollywood beckoned and Kaye signed with producer Samuel Goldwyn to star in Up in Arms, a remake of Eddie Cantor’s 1930 musical, Whoopee! Goldwyn made two suggestions to Kaye about his appearance: a nose job so he would look less Jewish, which Kaye refused; and a request to change his hair color from its natural red to blonde for the cameras, to which Kaye agreed.
As Cantor dominated Whoopee! so Kaye dominates Up in Arms. He plays Danny Weems, a man that can best be described as a hypochondriac’s hypochondriac. He even gets a job as an elevator operator in a medical building so he can be close to the doctors. His snap diagnoses of patients irk the doctors, who are constantly telling him to mind his own business. He is in love with nurse Mary Morgan (Dowling), but she’s in love with his best friend Joe (Andrews). Conversely, Joe’s girl, nurse Virginia (Shore) is secretly in love with Danny.
When Danny and Joe are drafted, the fun really begins. After a rough stretch in basic training, they are shipped to the South Pacific, where Danny again runs afoul of the Colonel (Calhern) and is imprisoned. As can only happen in Hollywood, he is “rescued” by a squad of Japanese and brought back to their camp for questioning. He manages to knock out the Japanese commander and, disguised as him, manages to capture the entire Japanese force, making him a hero.
The film mixes its unabashed themes of patriotism, romance, and idealism, both on the front lines and the home front quite nicely, as would be expected. It’s the star power of Kaye, however, that allows the film to transcend from the ordinary to the superlative. He rivets us with his performance of the song, “Theatre Lobby Number” (written by his wife Sylvia with Max Leibman), taking the audience through the credits of an entire movie in swing time. Another highlight was born on the stage: singing a song in scat. This Kaye does in “Melody in 4-F” (also written by Sylvia and Leibman, originally performed by Kaye in Let’s Face It). It’s a wonderful and entrancing number about the life of a soldier from draft questionnaire to the field of battle, told in scat style with only a few words emphasized for the audience’s benefit and accentuated with Kaye’s manic style.
It wasn’t just Kaye, however, who makes the magic in the movie. Credit must also be given to Dinah Shore, who matches Kaye almost note for note, albeit without the mania. During a dream sequence in which Kaye is married to Mary by preacher Calhern, it turns out that she married Joe instead. This leads to a dynamic number with co-star Shore with Kaye decked out in a burgundy suit traipsing amongst Goldwyn Girls dressed in black and made up as a sort of Postmodern forest. He and Shore then launch into a frenetic number segueing in and out of a variety of styles, slang, scat and jive, almost as if Kaye were trying to impersonate a Black performer impersonating Danny Kaye pretending to impersonate a Black performer. It’s utterly amazing to watch, with an almost hypnotic effect that makes one want to rewind and watch again and again. In fact, during all Kaye’s numbers he seems to transcend the movie itself, as if he were performing in another dimension while the movie was going on behind him and not as part of the movie.
For some strange reason, the movie is not currently on DVD. We can only hope that whatever Powers-That-Be come to their senses and release this one. In the meantime, watch our TCM TiVo Alert for its next showing.
By 1946 Danny Kaye was a staple of America’s cultural landscape. Up in Arms was a major hit, he had a hit radio show, and was in demand at clubs all across the nation. So it was only natural that he should be lampooned in some form or other. Incredibly, the work that lampooned Kaye later came itself to be regarded as a work of both cinematic art and cartoon art.
Book Revue was produced by the animation unit of Warners and released in 1946. Directed by Bob Clampett and animated by Manny Gould, Robert McKimson, Bill Melendez, and Rod Scribner, it follows in the “books and other things come to life” style of earlier Warners efforts as Have You Got Any Castles? (1938) and Goofy Groceries (1941) that featured pop culture stars of the time. However, Book Revue transcends these prior efforts by taking us into the Postmodern, as it were, blending real personalities with fictional titles and characters and no demarcation line between the two. The cartoon begins at Midnight (the Witching Hour) when an inebriated cuckoo emerges from his clock to announce the time. Cut to the cover of The Complete Works of Shakespeare, where a silhouette of the author is shown with clock gear insides. Harry James, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Bob Burns (as a hillbilly playing his bazooka), Tommy Dorsey, and Frank Sinatra all make appearances and the scene changes into a full-blown jam session.
Suddenly cut to Daffy Duck, on the cover of a Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies comic book. (Look quickly in the background. There is a book by Ann Anomymous titled The Invisible Man: A Biography of Robert Clampett.) Daffy walks over to the cover of Saratoga Trunk and begins going through the trunk, putting on a purple zoot suit with a big green bow tie, a blond wig, and a set of teeth in the style of Danny Kaye.
He shouts “Stop!” bringing the music to a halt. The cartoon now belongs wholly to Daffy, in a manic parody for the ages, and one that has yet to be duplicated.
Daffy goes over to the cover of Danny Boy (in case we didn’t get it by now) and denounces the goings-on in a faux Russian accent in the style of Kaye. “Swing music. Jazz. Phooey! Ah, bublichkas. How difference in my native willage: Soft music, why-o-lins; the happy peoples sitting on their balalaikas, playing their samovars. And then … there was Cucaracha. Ah, Cucaracha. So round, so firm, so fully packed, so easy on the draw. They would sing to me a little Gypsy love song, like this. Listen. CUCARACHA! CUCARACHA CUCARACHA, HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO. CUCARACHA, CUCARACHA, HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO.” He then launches into a version of Carolina in the Morning: “Nothing could be feener than to be in Caroleener in the morning...”
As he sings, Little Red Riding Hood passes by (a parody of Margaret O’Brien) and Daffy makes his way to Grandma’s house, where the wolf is sitting in the window. As Daffy dances away, finishing the song, the Wolf snaps at him repeatedly. Daffy now beats Red to Grandma’s door and warns her about the wolf in scat, a parody of “Melody in 4-F.” It goes like this (Thanks to zerozordon620 on You Tube for the lyrics):
“Beep deep beep da boop doo bay, Big bad wolf in a suit zoo gay, Heep zoop zaddle zoodle zed, Heep doop oodle up to Grandma's bed, Heep doop zeedle zondle zeers, Zeep zoop zoddle great big ears, Heep doop doddle doodle zid, Hop da better to hear you with. Hey hey hoo hoo how 'bout that? Say hoo what eyes you got, Laddle dad laddle did, Reet toot toddle to see you with, Leet toot toddle zaa zoo beet, Zeep zoop zoddle great big teeth, Heet zoop zoddle det doo top, Heet zoop zoddle to eat you up. Doorain, doorain, doorain.”
Red screams and runs away. Daffy does a double take with the Wolf salting his leg and becomes a giant eye lens as he realizes the Wolf now wants him. After a chase, The Long Arm of the Law reaches out, grabs the Wolf and deposits him before Judge Magazine. The Wolf is sentenced to Life (Magazine), but breaks out. He’s tripped by Jimmy Durante’s nose (on the cover of So Big), landing on Skid Row. As he tries to scramble out, a pair of hands is holding Sinatra up before him. The Wolf merely says, “Frankie,” and faints into Dante’s Inferno. Everyone breaks into celebration when the Wolf suddenly pops his head out of the Inferno and shouts, “Stop that dancing up there! . . .ya sillies.” This is the actual title of a 1944 song by Harry “the Hipster” Gibson, with the lisping “ya sillies” added as a take-off on Joe Besser.
Book Revue was one of six cartoons Clampett made in 1946, his last year at the studio. Unlike his co-directors, Jones, Tashlin, and Freling, Clampett’s work frequently pushed the bounds of storylines and characterization. From ‘30s black and white cartoons like Porky in Wackyland (1938), The Daffy Doc (1938) and Africa Squeaks (1940) to Horton Hatches the Egg (1942), the classic Great Piggy Bank Robbery and his finale, the thoroughly surrealistic The Big Snooze (both 1946), Clampett continued to blur the lines between character, story and audience to the point where the accepted rules of storytelling no longer applied. After he was fired by new production chief Eddie Selzer in 1946 for continuing to break the rules, Clampett began a new career as a puppeteer, creating Beany and Cecil, which later became a successful cartoon series, but nowhere near the level of his work for Warner Brothers. More’s the pity.