January 18, 1913
Thank you AMC.
Or, rather, the AMC that once was. Don’t get me wrong, I am an admirer of the excellent original programming it produces these days but I will always fondly cherish the earlier years—when “American Movie Classics” did not, for example, include any films by Keanu Reeves (Speed? Really?). During a rather prolonged illness in my adolescent years, I’d recline on the couch and flip the television to AMC without even consulting a schedule. Part of its charm was the diversity of escapist fare it offered. A typical day’s lineup could include a glorious Busby Berkeley musical, a cast-of-thousands historical epic, Citizen Kane, a precocious Audrey Hepburn flick, any number of antiquated music videos from the Big Band era, a polite romantic comedy featuring Claudette Colbert, and some meaningless yet amusing piece of cinematic fluff from Betty Grable.
And, on a particularly good day, a Danny Kaye film.
There are those comedians of days gone by who have been so effectively lionized since their glory days that they remain on the contemporary cultural radar: even if you’ve never sat through a Chaplin film or watched the Marx brothers in motion, their names and faces are familiar, their genius assured. Mr. Kaye, sadly, has not been so fortunate in his legacy.
The relative obscurity of a man who was once at the very top of his game and extravagantly praised is a damn shame. But what makes the performer born as David Daniel Kaminsky so fascinating—and his work so enduring—is the unique blend of talents he possessed. This was a man of precise and powerful skills, and watching them in action is a felicitous occasion.
He could present a tongue-twister like no other.
He could make like Fred Astaire…
…and turn ballet into delicious buffoonery.
(the ballet begins at 2:51)
He could wail with Louie…
… sing opera with amazing comic timing…
…and croon children’s tunes.
He could make fencing funny.
(click through to 2:30 for a real display of virtuosity)
He could conduct an orchestra a la Bugs Bunny…
…and also impersonate one pretty damn accurately.
Rubber-faced, rapid-tongued, graceful of movement yet able to ape supreme clumsiness; Mr. Kaye invested his slapstick with an innate elegance and performed feats of verbal flexibility that have yet to be matched. His complex, comic songs (written by his wife and lifelong collaborator Sylvia Fine) were legendary and brought him acclaim, but he considered himself a thwarted doctor at heart. He was convincing as both the idiot and the sophisticate, the brassy lunatic as well as the shy introvert (a duality that would come in handy for several of his split-screen film adventures). He created pandemonium during his live shows in London, and hostility in those of his coworkers who did not always appreciate the perfectionism and artistic moodiness of their star.
Over the course of his life, his career took him from his humble beginnings as a tummler on the Borscht Belt circuit to acting as a guest conductor for the greatest symphonies in the world and a beloved spokesman for UNICEF. His many non-performing hobbies included baseball (he was a part owner of the Seattle Mariners), Chinese cookery (he would spend days preparing elaborate meals for his friends), and flying (he had a commercial pilot’s license). He was a devoted father, though his reputation as a husband has always been a matter of great debate (he has been rumored a womanizer and Sir Laurence Olivier’s gay lover, so take your pick).
In short, he was a complex and very talented man, and his death in 1987 left a void in the world of comedy that nobody can fill, no matter how many imitators have tried to lay claim to his unique legacy of laughter. You can spot bits of Danny in everything from Steve Martin circa The Jerk to Jim Carrey’s far inferior attempts at facial contortions and silly voices in the 1990s. But Mr. Kaye was the whole package, and a true original.
Its too bad AMC isn’t still around in its previous incarnation so we could be treated to an all-day marathon of Kaye classics. But thanks to the miracles of the modern internet age, you can find a goodly sample of Danny Kaye’s work online (here are my recommendations); so take a little time out today to have a good, therapeutic laugh and pay homage to a man unparalleled in his talents.
Don’t let Mr. Kaye go unappreciated on this, his birthday. For, as he sings in one of his most enduring songs,
“a jester’s chief employment, is to kill himself for your enjoyment; and a jester unemployed is nobody’s fool.”
I know I am not alone in telling dear Danny that he will always be my favorite fool.
January 18, 2010 at 9:07 am | Happy Birthday! | 7 comments