Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye in a weirdly altered photo. Image: Alamy

Danny Kaye, we owe you an apology.

We never were a fan of your films. We thought you were Too Much, and you seemed, to us, cloying in your efforts to be silly. Your boundless energy wore us out because we refused to see the point.

We did acknowledge your mental dexterity and commitment to going All Out, but we also found you overwhelming at times.

Even though your films were (and still are) beloved by many, we remained unmoved. We didn’t laugh at your antics, and we wondered how you got to be famous.

Then we saw you in The Five Pennies (1959), and we were taken aback. You actually made us laugh and you almost moved us to tears.

It was like we’d never seen you in a movie before.

Kaye fails to out-hustle Susan Gordon.

The Five Pennies is a biopic about the Dixieland jazz band leader, Red Nichols, who became popular in the late 1920s. “Red Nichols and The Five Pennies” was the name of his group, and various members over the years included Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Glenn Miller – basically a Who’s Who of popular music in the mid-twentieth century.

In addition to being a bandleader, Nichols played the coronet and he was, apparently, one of The Best.

You, Danny Kaye, were a surprisingly good choice to play Nichols. Although you never mastered the coronet for your role (you “faked” the fingering while the actual Red Nichols played), you made us believe you were the Real Deal.

You have terrific chemistry with your co-stars. The scenes with Louis Armstrong are magic; they feel like history in the making.

Barbara Bel Geddes played your wife, and a young Tuesday Weld played your teenage daughter. You lean into their impressive performances without stealing them.

And you’re fabulous with wee Susan Gordon, who was cast as the younger version of your daughter. You wink at us while playing her straight man, yet you direct our focus towards her so we can appreciate how truly funny she is.

You also proved your dramatic Acting Chops in the scene where Gordon is diagnosed with polio, and your character trades an up-and-down music career for steady employment at a California shipyard during WWII.

But that scene where you throw your coronet into the river.

It’s a pivotal moment in the film, and it signals an unwelcome change of Tone. “No!” we shouted, as you hurl the instrument into the water, your face a mix of grief and regret and determination. It’s exquisitely done.

We nearly wept, and that’s when we realized we’d become a fan.

Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, and baby on tour. Image: TCM

The Five Pennies isn’t an entirely faithful re-telling of Nichols’s life; that’s how it is with most Hollywood biopics. It also had to be a vehicle for Danny Kaye’s personae because that’s what audiences paid to see.

The film was nominated for four Oscars, including music, cinematography, and costume design. These are not insignificant achievements for a film, and it’s surprising The Five Pennies isn’t more well known today, especially considering how influential Red Nichols was as a musician.

It took us a long time to cross paths with this film and become a fan, but here we are.

As for our previous assessments of your work, Danny Kaye, we take them all back.


The Five Pennies: starring Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong. Directed by Melville Shavelson. Written by Melville Shavelson & Jack Rose. Tonylyn Productions, 1959, Technicolor, 117 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

21 Comment on “Dear Danny Kaye: We Take It Back

  1. Pingback: Welcome to The Danny Kaye Blogathon! – Poppity Talks Classic Film

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