Friday, October 23, 2015

Cheesy Kids' Stuff: The Danny Kaye Show

Danny Kaye and Mary Tyler Moore on The Danny Kaye Show.

In a time as besotted as ours with pop culture nostalgia, when people with a hundred years' worth of recorded entertainment available at their fingertips insist that anything they liked as kids is a "classic" and regard anything outside their generational frame of reference as a likely source of camp hilarity, it's hard not to find it fascinating whenever any performer once regarded as a big deal sinks out of view and doesn't bob back to the surface within six months. What's Goonies and Grease 2 got that George Raft doesn't? (Don't answer that.) Consider the case of Danny Kaye. When Kaye died, less than thirty years ago, there was a whole generation that knew him, if they knew him at all, as a faded children's entertainer. Kaye's movie career was over by 1970, but in the mid-'70s, he co-starred in a couple of TV musicals, playing Geppetto to Sandy Duncan's Pinocchio and Captain Hook to Mia Farrow's Peter Pan. They felt like an extension of his ubiquitous work promoting UNICEF, the international children's charity that had tapped him as its Goodwill Ambassador back in 1954.

There was a time, in the 1940s, when Kaye was Hollywood's biggest comedy star. That puts him in the same general category as Jerry Lewis and Adam Sandler. But there was more to it than that. "He was called a genius," as David Thomson writes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, in a tone of undisguised incredulity. Kaye's reputation as a comic genius was based in large part on his live performances, not all of which were open to the general public; there are reports that at parties or at home in the company of fellow comics, Kaye would launch himself into wild, improvised satirical monologues, taking on invented characters and keeping the balloon in the air for hours. Stories like this make Kaye sound like Joe Ancis and Mister Rogers rolled into one. In Hollywood, he was packaged as the star of big, frantic, strenuously inoffensive musicals by Samuel Goldwyn. These movies were designed as showcases for Kaye's "tour de force" performances, and they're just about unwatchable now; Kaye provides a bright moment now and then, but they're (smallish) diamonds buried in mounds of lard. (Some of his brightest moments come in Goldwyn's biggest and rankest lard ball: 1947's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a grotesque travesty of the James Thurber source material.)

About the only movie of Kaye's that anyone has watched voluntarily in the past forty years or so is The Court Jester, fondly remembered for the line "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle…" This is a pocket version of the kind of high-speed, word-packed patter numbers that had been a specialty of Kaye's since the Broadway hit Lady in the Dark. One reason patter songs continued to be a specialty of Kaye's as a performer is that they were a specialty of his wife, Sylvia Fine, as a songwriter. Fine, who was married to Kaye from 1940 – the same year that Lady in the Dark made him a star – until his death, played a major role in selecting his material and shaping his public image, which became that of a sweet, naive dullard who shifts easily into nervous panic, and who is sometimes possessed by wild comic demons, though never for long. There may be a reason why more anarchistic comedians don't collaborate with their spouses, just as there is a reason few aficionados of musical comedies don't go into nostalgic rhapsodies over the Goldwyn touch.

Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (1955).

In 1964, after years of watching his screen stardom fade to black, Kaye moved to TV as the star of his own CBS variety show. (He only appeared in one other movie, as part of the international all-star cast supporting Katherine Hepburn in the 1969 disaster The Madwoman of Chaillot.) The new DVD set The Best of the Danny Kaye Show collects six full episodes, with the promise of seeing whether a looser, lower-budgeted format of sketches 'n songs might have been a better showcase for Kaye's flyweight gifts than expensive Technicolor musicals. The first wave of comedians who broke through in the early years of TV were hungry and eager to make their mark, whether they had fought their way up through the burlesque houses and stalled movie careers, like Jackie Gleason and Milton Berle, or fresh-faced newcomers like Sid Caesar and Steve Allen. Kaye was, along with Judy Garland (who also starred in her own CBS show in 1964), probably the biggest name roped in by a network at that time. Garland, whose show would prove to be a miserable experience for everyone involved, had burned her bridges in Hollywood and badly needed the work, but Kaye may have really hoped to renew his relationship with the audience, by working fast, on a modest scale, with a revolving cast of guest stars and a room full of smart comedy writers. (The writers credited here include Mel Tolkin, Gary Belkin, Pat McCormick, Ron Clark, and the team of Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker.) He might have even thought it might be fun.

Of the episodes included on the DVDs, the most fun, for both the audience and Kaye, can be found in the ones from the first season, when the show was shot in black and white. The first episode gets off to a weak start with a seemingly improvised routine between Kaye and Lucille Ball, who might as well be played here by Gilda Radner; when in doubt, she goes straight for the "Waaaaaah!!" There's also a musical interlude with a dull singer named John Gary, who Kaye praises as "warm and pure and totally refreshing" and can't get enough of. (Other episodes include appearances Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, and the finger-poppin' Righteous Brothers. Except for Satchmo, the rule with the musical guests seems to be that the better they are, the less Kaye wants to do with them; he offers a brief introduction, the camera cuts to the singers, they do their songs, and then drop through the trap door.) But the show kicks to life during a playlet that Kaye promises will give us the chance to see two actors, himself and Lucy, playing six characters. I was prepared for the worst after that, but instead of trying to knock the audience dead with a ferocious display of technical bravura, the sketch is designed to make fun of that very kind of show-off theatricality; Kaye and Ball rush on and off stage, swapping outfits and facial hair and hamming it up with outrageous accents, and at one point come running in from the wings costumed and made up to play the same character. It's a large-scale demonstration of the charm of pure silliness, which may have been Kaye's best key; I laughed out loud for the first time when he staggered on as a butler, a bald cap stamped on his head, expertly carrying a tray holding two props: a glass of milk and a large bottle labeled "RAT POISON."

The second episode – the first here to include series regular Harvey Korman – also boasts a long theatrical sketch, a mini-musical about forbidden love between an American naval officer played by Kaye and guest star Imogene Coca as an innocent Japanese girl, (It combines the most down-to-earth side of The Mikado with the most unhinged side of South Pacific.) It's the best thing on the discs, full of high spirits and mad wordplay. ("If you see bell-bottom pants, sir / There is only one answer.") But it also gives you a taste of the dangers of letting Kaye slip his leash. At one point, while Korman and Coca are playing a scene together, he pops up in the background, waving to the camera and mugging, as if he might keel over if he has to wait until his entrance to get his next injection of audience attention. At one point, Korman's paste-on beard falls off, which is funny. Then Kaye comes on and improvises a line about the it, which is also funny. But then he picks the beard up off the stage and will not let the whole thing die. (In 1970, Kaye returned to Broadway to star as Noah – as in Noah's Ark – in a Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin musical, Two by Two. Kaye responded to what he saw as the failings of the book by reportedly hijacking the production, going far off script and improvising a different show every night, to Rodgers's dismay and the considerable diminishment of Kaye's professional reputation. Not having seen it myself, I've never been sure who I would have rooted for if I'd been trapped in a Broadway house during the show's run, the aggrieved authors or the star working his ass off to keep the production afloat, but now that I have a better idea of just what Richard Rodgers was up against, I wish I could give him a hug.)

Harvey Korman, Danny Kaye, Juliet Prowse and Vincent Price on The Danny Kaye Show.

The series grows more polished as it goes along. Which is too bad; as the live-theater pieces with the shaky backdrops get packed up, they're mostly replaced by more conventional comedy sketches of surpassing mediocrity, and Kaye's "Let's put on a show!" spirit dries up. What replaces it is dull professionalism and the occasional attempt to show that the leading man is an actor of chameleon-like range, which mostly means aging makeup and broad accents, as in a long, rudderless number starring Kaye as an Italian-American papa who feels unappreciated by his grown children. The domestic sketches are a waste of time from the start, beginning with a scene in which Kaye and Coca play a bickering London couple. ("I may have lost my job, but there's one thing in this apartment that's always working – your big mouth!") Again, the characters seem to be Cockney just so that Kaye can imagine he's acting by doing an accent, and maybe also to make the sketch seem a little bit different from The Honeymooners. The single worst episode may be the most ambitious, an hour of comedy and song organized around the theme of "Men vs. Women." It opens with an Adam-and-Eve-in-the-garden sketch that's such a groaner it ends with a "Not tonight, honey, I have a headache" punchline, and climaxes with a fantasy courtroom musical so flamboyantly misconceived that it makes you wonder if Kaye was nostalgic for Lady in the Dark. The low point comes when Kaye sings a horrid Rod McKuen song about the nature of Woman ("A little like a woman, a whole lot like a child") over a film of Shirley Jones scampering lyrically through Central Park. To Kaye's and the show's credit, this is followed by a parody in which Jones croons doggerel about Man while Kaye is seen pratfalling through the park, but to get to the punchline, you still have to make it through the setup.

If Kaye had a signature recurring character on the show, his Eunice or Nick the lounge singer, it was Jerome, identified by the series announcer as "our shy friend from the Bronx." I'd never seen Jerome before, but I had read about him, and as he's always characterized as "shy," I wasn't looking forward to making his acquaintance. Shyness is painful, and breeds loneliness, so I was afraid that Jerome would be Kaye's big play for Chaplinesque pathos, which was widely accepted by many comedians of Kaye's generation as the note to aim for when they wanted to be taken for poets. (Even Jackie Gleason tried to be Chaplinesque in his Poor Soul routines and his career-denting movie Gigot.) I was relieved to discover that the Jerome sketches here aren't the least bit poignant – but then, in these sketches, Jerome himself isn't really shy, and he isn't lonely, either. (One of them is about his friends' frustrated efforts to throw him a surprise birthday party.) He's just a chipper, unassuming fellow with a Bronx accent who doesn't always understand what's going on and who gets into slapstick mishaps but whose sunny disposition makes those around him feel good; he's almost an urban Forrest Gump. He might also be Kaye's fantasy of how he might have turned out in life if he hadn't had the energy and drive to pursue his dream of making it into show business.

Danny Kaye with 4-year-old Victoria Meyerink.
Where did that drive go after The Danny Kaye Show, when Kaye spent most of the twenty years left to him sitting on the sidelines, seemingly uninterested in keeping his career going? (The energy seems to have stayed with him to the end.) Kaye, who told interviewers that his movies started bombing when audiences decided they wanted more realistic stories about things that were sometimes "unpleasant," must have felt increasingly out of step with the culture in the late '60s and '70s, and he may have felt virtuous about not getting down in the dirt. But other comedians who had outlived their marquee days kept pushing their way back onstage whenever they could, for as long as they could, and if that sometimes meant doing things that should have been beneath their dignity when no other work was available – Harry Ritz in Blazing Stewardesses comes to mind – that "do not go gentle into that good night" quality is also part of what makes them inspiring.

Ten years after Paul Mazursky had written for Kaye's TV show, he offered him the lead role in Harry and Tonto, which would win Art Carney an Academy Award. The role might have been an ideal comeback vehicle for Kaye, but Mazursky withdrew his offer after Kaye indicated that he wanted to rewrite the script to make it more of a gag comedy. So maybe Kaye always had more talent than taste, but there may have been more to his semi-retirement than that. Maybe Kaye, who went through a lot of career rejection before Lady in the Dark made him an overnight success at 30, and who had made it to the top of the mountain, simply didn't want to experience rejection again, and so only did the things that someone was prepared to beg him to do. In the final episode on the DVDs, the guest is George Burns, who was 14 years older than Kaye, who – very warmly – treats him as an adored relic of an earlier era of show business. But it was Burns who would go on to win an Oscar for The Sunshine Boys and turn that into a comeback that he would continue to milk for the rest of his long life. Burns may have never had easy access to the kind of energy Kaye frittered away, but on a deeper level, as a performer and public presence, he was alive in a way that Kaye wasn't.

Watching Kaye explode with improvisational energy, it's easy to think of comedians like Robin Williams, who also made a special connection to children. The difference is that Williams often seemed to be able to revert to childhood himself, before your eyes. Pauline Kael once wrote of Kaye that while "his talents are violently evident… they're stuck in the mud of 'family entertainment.'" Kaye's movies and much of his later TV work wasn't conceived in a spirit of childlike playfulness, it was "family entertainment" by virtue of its bland, martial determination not to offend anyone. That's a template that might be specially designed to sap the spirit out of any comic. The Danny Kaye Show even includes semi-regular appearances by a child actress, Victoria Meyerink, whose job it was to come out and plop in Danny's lap while he was sitting onstage being "himself," so they could be adorable together. At moments like that, Kaye abandoned the noble calling of tapping his inner child for comic purposes to campaign for the position of America's Grandfather-in-Chief. They taint the good work Kaye did for UNICEF, making you wonder if he started to devote so much time to entertaining children and speaking on their behalf because, so long as he stuck to that, nobody was going to demand too much of him as a performer, or slam him for it. Watching him singing the theme song from Cabaret in a chirpy, upbeat manner that is impervious to irony, while surrounded by Pop Art cutouts of emblems of the American 1920s instead of Weimar-era ghouls, you may feel that the lesson of Danny Kaye's career is that there's an important difference between retaining one's childlike innocence and not having a clue.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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