Sunday 21 January 2018

Clown with a Kaye

Ben Stiller reprises the role of Walter Mitty in the 2013 remake. Danny Kaye (was in the 1947 original. BARON/GETTY IMAGES
Ben Stiller reprises the role of Walter Mitty in the 2013 remake. Danny Kaye (was in the 1947 original. BARON/GETTY IMAGES

Paul Whitington

A new film with an old title opens in Ireland next Friday. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty stars Ben Stiller as a lowly clerk at Life magazine whose rich fantasy world spills over into reality. The film is loosely based on the classic 1939 James Thurber short story, but also on a 1947 version of Walter Mitty that starred Danny Kaye as the hapless dreamer.

A script for this new version has been knocking around for almost two decades, and proposed productions have been cancelled numerous times. Jim Carrey, Owen Wilson, Mike Myers and Sasha Baron Cohen were all down to star as Mitty at one point, and, when Ben Stiller agreed to play him in 2012, it was on the condition that he got to direct the film as well.

It will be interesting to see if Stiller goes for the same brand of high farce that Danny Kaye executed so brilliantly in the original film. The 1947 version is on TV over Christmas so comparisons will be inevitable, as indeed will comparisons between Stiller and Kaye.

Stiller is very much a product of his time, a hard-working comic actor who learned the ropes on Saturday Night Live and other TV shows before graduating to movie comedies, directing and, eventually, more serious roles.

But with due respect to Stiller, Kaye was a different proposition altogether. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was a huge star of both stage and screen. He could sing, dance, act and mimic, and was one of the best physical clowns in film history.

And while his unique magic is to some extent captured in films like Hans Christian Andersen, The Court Jester and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, there are those who claim he was even better live.

In a way, Kaye was typical of the elastic young comic actors who emerged from the tough school of American vaudeville armed with a bag of tricks and an iron hide. But Kaye was special, and you could argue that Hollywood never really figured out what to do with him.

David Daniel Kaminsky was born in Brooklyn in either January 1913 or January 1911, depending on who you ask -- there are suggestions that Danny may have told a few white lies about his age. His parents were Ukrainian Jews, and his father ran a small tailor's shop in Manhattan.

As a boy, Danny dreamed of being a doctor, but medical school cost lots of money, and things got tough at home when his mother died suddenly. After that, Danny's medical plans were permanently shelved.

"I became an entertainer," Kaye once said, "not because I wanted to but because I was meant to."

He'd always enjoyed singing and clowning around for his classmates, and, after he left school at 14, Danny began performing comic routines at private parties to make money. By the late 1920s, he was a regular on the so-called 'Borscht Belt', the chain of summer resorts that used to dot upstate New York's Catskill Mountains and where everyone from the Marx brothers to Mel Brooks and Billy Crystal got their starts.

This was a tough training ground, and Catskills crowds were famous for eating malfunctioning comics alive. He survived by mixing it up, clowning around during songs, breaking into gangly dances and feigning fainting fits. With his skinny legs, shock of red hair and blinding grin, his was an act you didn't forget in a hurry.

In 1933, he joined the Three Terpsichoreans, a vaudeville comic dance act, and began using the shortened stage name of Kaye for the first time.

The act was a hit and went on an overseas tour in 1934. When the Terpsichoreans were performing in Osaka, Japan, a typhoon hit the city, knocking out the power during a concert.

To calm the nervy audience, Danny went on stage holding a flashlight to his face and sang every song he could think of. The experience of playing to non-English speaking audiences made him expand his repertoire of gestures, facial tics and pratfalls that would later become trademarks.

Back in New York, his lean and honed nightclub act began attracting attention. In 1941, he landed a part in a Broadway play called Lady in the Dark: Kaye couldn't resist comic improvisations, and soon upstaged his leading lady, Gertrude Lawrence. Hollywood was the next logical step.

He was signed up by MGM in 1944, and made his Hollywood debut in a comedy called Up in Arms. His winning performance as a hypochondriac elevator operator went down well with audiences, and studio boss Samuel Goldwyn realised he had a new and very different kind of star on his hands. But he couldn't resist tinkering: Kaye agreed to dye his red hair blonde because it looked better in Technicolor, but drew the line at a nose job Goldwyn thought would make him look less Jewish.

The public didn't care if he looked Jewish or not: they loved him and, by the end of World War II, he was already a major star. He showed his class in Wonder Man (1945) opposite his recurring co-star Virginia Mayo, playing estranged twins with very different personalities. He was a coward-turned-boxer with a gift for ducking in the amusing 1946 comedy The Kid from Brooklyn, and cemented his stardom in 1947 with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Kaye was born to play the part of Mitty, a henpecked drone who escapes into a fantasy life to avoid the ugliness of reality. He showed his comic range playing Mitty's dream alter egos, including a dashing fighter pilot, a brilliant lawyer, a heart surgeon and a hilariously camp milliner called 'Anatole of Paris', who regularly breaks into one of Kaye's trademark nonsensical patter-songs.

There was no one like him, but finding roles to suit Kaye's unique talents wasn't easy. He was great fun in A Song is Born (1948), playing a music academic who accidentally discovers jazz. And those of us born in the 1960s and early 1970s will always remember Kaye for his infectiously energetic performance in Hans Christian Andersen, a hit 1952 musical that was shown regularly on TV when I was a kid but sadly is rarely screened now.

Kaye got equal billing with Bing Crosby in the classic 1954 musical White Christmas, and had another hit in 1956 comic musical The Court Jester. But vehicles that suited him were few and far between, and the public didn't seem to want him playing anything too serious. He won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of a resourceful Jew on the run from the Nazis in the 1958 satire Me and the Colonel, but the film did not do well, and by the end of the 1950s his movie career had stuttered to a halt.

He moved to television, hosting his own hugely popular primetime variety show from 1963 to 1967, and also toured in an acclaimed one-man show.

Kaye also gave his time and talent freely to various charities, was a UN goodwill ambassador and raised millions for UNICEF.

There's always been gossip about Kaye's sexuality. He separated from his wife and business partner Sylvia Fine in 1947, and a number of writers have claimed that he was either bisexual or homosexual. A recent biography of Vivien Leigh suggested that her marriage to Laurence Olivier ended because the great actor was having an affair with Kaye. That sounds too good to be true, but I suppose that doesn't necessarily mean it isn't.

And in any case, who cares. Danny Kaye did more for charity than most of his peers put together, and remained a much-loved Hollywood resident until his death from a heart attack in March of 1987. He was 74. After he died the newspapers that had all but forgotten him proclaimed his enduring genius. A genius he was, a clown prince who never quite found a home in Hollywood.

PWHITINGTON@INDEPENDENT.IE

Irish Independent

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