Movie Stars: Kaye, Danny–Kid from Brooklyn, Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Inspector General, Hans Christian Anderson

When I was a young boy, my parents took to see me all of Danny Kaye’s movies.

Years later, I had the honor of meeting Kaye in person through a big Broadway agent and close friend of mine. It was in 1976, when Kaye played the role of Mister Geppetto in a TV musical adaptation of Pinocchio with Sandy Duncan in the title role.

I then watched Kaye’s Captain Hook opposite Mia Farrow in a musical version of Peter Pan, with songs written by Anthony Newly and Leslie Bricusse, which was shown on NBC-TV in December 1976 as part of the Hallmark Hall of Fame.

It therefore gives me a lot of pleasure to write this essay on the occasion of the centenary of Danny Kay, who was born on January 18, 1913 and died March 3, 1987. The event went unmarked by most of the social media, except for TCM, Which on January 18, 2013, during a 24-hour marathon, presented a salute to Kaye by showing 12 of his pictures.

Why? Did he fall from grace? Did his movies age badly? Did the persistent rumors about his affair with Laurence Olivier damage his reputation?

Kaye was a multi-talented man: a movie star, singer, dancer, comedian, and humanitarian. His best known performances were based on physical comedy, idiosyncratic humor, and rapid-fire delivery of songs and movement. Kaye is one of the few performers who claims three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for his work in music, radio, and films.

Though never nominated for a legit, competitive award, Kaye received two Oscars: an Honorary Oscar in 1955 and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1982. He also received that year the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Annual Award.

Best-Known Films

Kaye starred in 17 movies, the best known of which are: The Kid from Brooklyn (1946), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), Hans Christian Anderson (1952), White Christmas (1954), and The Court Jester (1956).

His films were extremely popular, especially his bravura performances of patter songs and children’s favorites such as “Inchworm” and “The Ugly Duckling”. He was the first ambassador-at-large of UNICEF in 1954 and received the French Legion of Honor in 1986 for his work with the organization.

David Daniel Kaminsky was born to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn. Jacob and Clara Nemerovsky Kaminsky and their two sons, Larry and Mac, left two years before his birth; Kaye was their only American-born son. He spent his early youth attending Public School 149 in Brooklyn—which would be re-named to honor him, where he began entertaining his classmates with songs and jokes, before moving to Thomas Jefferson High School, but he never graduated.

His mother’s death, when he was in his teens, was a great loss for him. Shortly thereafter, Kaye and his best friend Louie ran away to Florida. Kaye sang while Louis played the guitar. When Kaye returned to New York, his father did not pressure him to return to school.
Kaye said he had wanted to become a surgeon, but the family could not afford a medical school education. He held a succession of jobs, soda jerk, insurance investigator, office clerk, but was fired from most of them. He lost the insurance job when he made an error that cost the company $40,000.

He learned his trade in his teenage years in the Catskills as a tummler in the Borscht Belt, spending four seasons at The White Roe resort. Kaye’s first break came in 1933 when he became one of the “Three Terpsichoreans,” a vaudeville dance act. He opened with them in Utica, New York, using the name Danny Kaye for the first time. The act toured the United States, then signed on to perform in the Orient with the show La Vie Paree.

The troupe left for six months in the Far East in 1934. While the group was in Osaka, Japan, a typhoon hit the city, and the hotel Kaye stayed in suffered heavy damage. By performance time, the city was still suffering from the storm. There was no power and the audience had become understandably restless and nervous. To keep everyone calm, Kaye went on stage, his face lit by a flashlight, and sang every song he could recall as loudly as he was able.

Trying to entertain audiences who did not speak English is what brought him to the pantomimes, gestures, songs and facial expressions which eventually made him famous. Sometimes it was necessary just to try to get a meal. In China, trying to order chicken, Kaye flapped his arms and clucked, giving the waiter his best imitation of a chicken. The waiter nodded his understanding, bringing Kaye two eggs. His interest in cooking began on the tour.

When he returned to the U.S., Kaye struggled for bookings. He worked in a burlesque revue with fan dancer Sally Rand. After the dancer dropped one of her fans while trying to chase away a fly, Kaye was hired to be in charge of the fans so they were always held in place.

Kaye made his film debut in a 1935 comedy short, Moon Over Manhattan. In 1937 he signed with the New York–based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. Kaye usually played a manic, dark-haired, fast-talking Russian in these low-budget shorts, opposite June Allyson or Imogene Coca. The Kaye series ended when the studio shut down in 1938.

He was still working in the Catskills in 1937, using the name of Danny Kolbin. Kaye’s next venture was a short-lived Broadway show, where Sylvia Fine was the pianist, lyricist and composer. The Straw Hat Revue opened on September 29, 1939, and closed after ten weeks, but critics took notice. The glowing reviews brought an offer for both Kaye and his new bride, Sylvia, to work at La Martinique, an upscale New York City nightclub.

At La Martinique, playwright Moss Hart saw Danny perform, which led to Hart casting him in his hit Broadway comedy, Lady in the Dark. Kaye scored a personal triumph in his show-stopping number, “Tchaikovsky,” by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, in which he sang the names of a whole string of Russian composers at breakneck speed, without taking a breath. By the next season, he was the star of his own show about a young man who is drafted called Let’s Face It.

His film debut was in producer Goldwyn’s 1944 comedy Up in Arms, a remake of Goldwyn’s Eddie Cantor comedy Whoopee! (1930). Kaye’s rubber face and fast patter were instant hit and rival producer Robert M. Savini cashed in immediately by compiling three of Kaye’s old Educational Pictures shorts into a makeshift feature, The Birth of a Star (1945).

MGM wanted Kaye to have his prominent nose fixed so it would look less Jewish, but Kaye refused. However, he changed his natural red hair into blonde, because it looked better that way in Technicolor.

Kaye starred in his own radio program, The Danny Kaye Show, on CBS in 1945–1946, whose cast included Eve Arden, Lionel Stander, and band leader Harry James. Kaye was asked to participate in a USO tour following the end of WWII. Kaye’s friends filled in for him, with a different guest host each week. Kaye was the first American actor to visit postwar Tokyo; it was his first time there after touring there some ten years before with the vaudeville troupe. Many of the show’s episodes are notable for Kaye’s opening “signature” patter. “Git gat gittle, giddle-di-ap, giddle-de-tommy, riddle de biddle de roop, da-reep, fa-san, skeedle de woo-da, fiddle de wada, reep!”

Kaye was so popular that he inspired imitations: The 1946 Warner cartoon Book Revue had Daffy Duck impersonating Kaye singing “Carolina in the Morning,” with the Russian accent that Kaye would affect. Songwriter Tom Lehrer’s 1953 song “Lobachevsky” was based on a number that Kaye had done, about the Russian director Stanislavski, again with the Russian accent. Lehrer mentioned Kaye in the opening monologue, citing him as an “idol since childbirth.” The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, also fashioned a short-lived superhero title, Funnyman, inspired by Kaye’s persona.

Popular Movies

Kaye starred in several movies with actress Virginia Mayo in the 1940s and 1950s. He is known for his screen roles in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), The Inspector General (1949), On the Riviera (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, Knock on Wood (1954), White Christmas (1954, in a role originally intended for Fred Astaire), The Court Jester (1956), and Merry Andrew (1958).

Kaye starred in two popular biopics: Hans Christian Anderson (1952) about Denmark’s legendary fabulist and story-teller, and The Five Pennies (1959), the life of jazz pioneer, Red Nichols. His wife, writer-lyricist Sylvia Fine, wrote many of the witty, tongue-twisting songs Kaye became famous for.

Some of Kaye’s films include the theme of the double, or dual identity, with him playing two people who look identical and being mistaken for each other.

When he appeared at the London Palladium in 1948, he roused the Royal family to shrieks of laughter and was the first of many performers who have turned English variety into an American preserve.” Life magazine described his reception as “worshipful hysteria” and noted that the royal family, for the first time in history, left the royal box to see the show from the front row of the orchestra. Kaye never returned to the venue because there was no way to re-create the magic of that time.

Kaye was invited to return to London for a Royal Variety Performance in November of the same year. When the invitation arrived, Kaye was busy at work on The Inspector General (which had a working title of Happy Times for a while). Warner stopped work on the film to allow their star to attend.

Oscar Show Host

He hosted the 24th Oscar Show in 1952, which was then broadcast only on radio. Telecasts of the Oscar ceremony would come a year later. During the 1950s, Kaye visited Australia, where he played “Buttons” in a production of Cinderella in Sydney. In 1953, Kaye started his own company, Dena Pictures, named for his daughter. Knock on Wood was the first film produced by him. The firm expanded into TV in 1960 under the name Belmont Television.

Kaye entered TV in 1956 through the CBS show See It Now with Edward R. Murrow. The Secret Life of Danny Kaye combined his 50,000-mile, ten-country tour as UNICEF ambassador with music and humor. His first solo effort was in 1960 with an hour-long special produced by Sylvia and sponsored by General Motors; there were similar specials in 1961 and 1962. He hosted his own variety show on CBS TV, The Danny Kaye Show, from 1963 to 1967, which won four Emmy Awards. Beginning in 1964, he acted as television host to the annual CBS telecasts of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz. Kaye also did a stint as one of the What’s My Line? Mystery Guests on the popular Sunday night CBS-TV quiz program. Kaye later served as a guest panelist on that show.

In the 1970s, Kaye injured his leg during the Richard Rodgers musical, Two By Tow, but went on with the show, appearing with his leg in a cast and cavorting on stage from a wheelchair. He had done the same on his television show in 1964 when his right leg and foot were burned from an at-home cooking accident. The camera shots were planned so TV viewers did not see Kaye in his wheelchair.

He guest-starred later in his career in episodes of The Muppet Show and The Cosby Show, and in the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone.
Kaye showed quite a different side as Ambassador for UNICEF and in his dramatic role in the memorable TV movie Skokie, in which he played a Holocaust survivor. Before his death, Kaye conducted an orchestra during a series of concerts organized for UNICEF fundraising.

In 1980, Kaye hosted and sang in the 25th Anniversary of Disneyland celebration, and hosted the opening celebration for Epcot in 1982, both of which were aired on prime-time American TV.

Kaye died of a heart attack in March 1987, following a bout of hepatitis. Kaye had quadruple bypass heart surgery in February 1983; he contracted hepatitis from a blood transfusion he received. He left a widow, Sylvia Fine, and a daughter, Dena. He is interred in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. His grave is adorned with a bench that contains friezes of a baseball and bat, an aircraft, a piano, a flower pot, musical notes, and a glove. Kaye’s name, birth and death dates are inscribed on the glove. The U.N. held a memorial tribute to him at their New York headquarters.

Was Danny Kaye Gay? Does It Really Matter Now?

There have been persistent claims that Kaye was gay or bisexual and some sources assert that Kaye and Olivier had a ten-year relationship in the 1950s while Olivier was married to Vivien Leigh. A biography of Leigh states that their affair caused her a nervous breakdown. The affair has been denied by Olivier’s official biographer, Terry Coleman. Joan Plowright, Olivier’s third wife and widow, deflected the question in a BBC interview. She is reputed to have referred to Kaye on another occasion, in response to a claim that it was she who broke up Olivier’s marriage to Leigh. However, in her own memoirs, Plowright denies there had been an affair between the two men.