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The Five Pennies

This weekend I watched one of my favorite performers, Danny Kaye, in “The Five Pennies,” a  1959 biopic based on the life of jazz cornettist Loring “Red” Nichols. The movie itself is sentimental and no doubt greatly fictionalized in the manner of so many musician biopics of the day (Cary Grant triumphing over post-accident disability as a decidedly not-gay Cole Porter, for instance), but Kaye’s performance is just great.

In the movie Red Nichols is a workaholic whose horn and career are his first priority. He loves his wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and daughter (Susan Gordon as a little girl and Tuesday Weld as a teenager), but he seems to love rehearsals, recording, performing on the road, and staying up to all hours with his musician friends more. Here’s a scene where he tries to sing his daughter to sleep – she’s been woken up by him playing poker in the other room.

Danny Kaye’s brilliant wife Sylvia Fine wrote the songs and lyrics for this movie, as she did for most of Kaye’s film and nightclub performances. Such a sweet song, and he had such a sweet voice.

Nichols and his wife decide life on the road is bad for their daughter, so they send her off to boarding school, where she contracts polio. Nichols blames himself and ends his music career. He spends the next years devoting himself to supporting his family with a job in a wartime factory, and to rehabilitating his daughter in hopes she’ll walk again one day. From the top of the music business in the ’20s, he becomes an unknown in the ’30s and ’40s, until his daughter convinces him to make a comeback. It’s all very sappy, but enjoyable.

Red Nichols’ “Five Pennies” band included quite a few musicians who later became famous bandleaders and eclipsed their former boss — Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman. They were played by actors in the movie, but one of Nichols’ real life fellow musicians, Louis Armstrong, was in the film and had a few memorable moments.

Danny Kaye was one of those all around great performers you don’t seem to see anymore. Comic, singer, dancer, actor — he could do it all.  He was just as multi-talented in the rest of his life, too, and had a list of accomplishments as long as your arm — golfer, pilot, chef, baseball team co-owner, and UNICEF’s first celebrity ambassador.

So cute!  I just love Danny Kaye.


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