David Koenig’s new book Danny Kaye:King of Jesters is the first full scale backstage look and critical analysis of Danny Kaye’s life and career. A multi talented performer, Koenig devotes individual chapters to each area of Kaye’s career from his early days in the Catskills to his later work on stage, radio, TV and in movies. Koenig gives full detailed accounts, many directly from those who knew and worked with Kaye, along with backstage stories on the making of his greatest roles including “The Court Jester,” “White Christmas” and many others.
Koenig’s also looks at Kaye’s relationship, both private and professional, with his wife Sylvia Fine who wrote many of Kaye’s best known songs (Pavlova, Anatole of Paris) as well his lifelong commitment as an Ambassador for UNICEF.
Those looking for a detailed biography might be disappointed but that was not the author’s intent. Instead Koenig shines a light on the many talents of an almost forgotten Hollywood figure today. Comedian, singer, dramatic actor, dancer, mimic and orchestra leader unique for his rapid fire ability to speak and sing wordy twisted dialogue and lyrics.
David Koenig is the author of such best sellers as “Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland,” “Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks,” and “Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World.” David is also the chief editor for the business journal “The Merchant Magazine.”
John: First, I want to thank you for taking the time to do this interview and let you know how much I enjoyed the book. What was it about Danny Kaye that attracted you to write about him?
David: Practically since birth, I’ve been a fan of the great movie comedians—the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, Bob Hope—but Danny Kaye was something more, he could also sing, dance, act, do dialects and rapid-fire specialty numbers. Consequently, every Danny Kaye movie could be vastly different from the next. You know what “a Marx Brothers movie” is, or a “Laurel & Hardy” movie. But there’s no typical Danny Kaye movie.”
John: How would you describe Kaye’s comedic style?
David: His comedy was broad early on, from his years as a tummler in the Borscht Belt. The over-the-top accents, the screams, the facial contortions. In his first several movies, producer Sam Goldwyn tried to present him as the second coming of Eddie Cantor. Success allowed Danny the freedom to showcase more of his talents and create a fuller, less frantic personality. All the other comics had sharply defined characters with finite skill sets. There was nothing Danny Kaye couldn’t do. He was film’s most capable buffoon.
John: I was happy to see that your book focuses mainly on Kaye’s career, and while you discuss biographical details you do not dwell or exploit the dark side or push forth rumors that other Kaye biographers have willingly dived into.
David: Yes, that was intentional. Certainly his life was intertwined with his work, so it would have been impossible to adequately discuss one without the other. But the tawdry rumors are, on the whole, unfounded and irrelevant.
John: You mention in the introduction that Danny Kaye’s greatest obstacle to mass popularity was “that he could do too much, too well” He was a multi-talented, stage, radio, and television performer and films were maybe not the best medium for seeing him at his best. Can you tell us what you meant by that?
David: First, what he did best—intimately connecting with an audience—came across best on stage, and those experiences, of course, are gone. Second, that he had so many talents created a fuller performer, but a more-difficult-to-classify character. Agents and producers wanted a well-defined identity to market. Danny had too many hooks. When he signed with his first agent, Harry Bestry, in 1937, Kaye had recently developed a “Mad Russian” character, to introduce a thickly-accented version of the song “Dinah” (“Deenah, is there anyone feenah, in the state of Caroleenah…”). Bestry began marketing Danny as the Mad Russian.
John: Kaye met his future wife, Sylvia Fine, while performing in upstate New York. She was driving force, as well as a talent in her own right, in Kaye’s career. Would he have been as successful without her?
David: I have to think that, inevitably, stardom would have found him. But Sylvia was a song-writer, who was able to distill all of Danny’s talents into intricate specialty numbers, and her numbers became Danny’s first successful hook.
John: What was Max Liebman’s, best known as one of the behind the scene talents in creating YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, involvement with Danny and Sylvia?
David: Max had hired Sylvia in the summer of 1938 to write songs for his revues at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos. He mentored Sylvia on writing the types of numbers she would, six months later, begin writing for Danny. She also convinced Liebman to hire Danny at Tamiment the following summer, and they continued to work together for several years, writing numbers for Danny to perform on stage and in his first movie, Up in Arms.
John: What’s most fascinating about the book is the behind the scenes stories, the backstories so to speak. One of the most interesting chapters is on the making of one of his best films, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and James Thurber’s involvement. Thurber was not happy with the results correct?
David: Correct. Goldwyn had purchased Thurber’s short story as a vehicle for Danny to continue playing his sporadically-frantic Eddie Cantor character who periodically bursts into Sylvia Fine specialty numbers. These elements are the antithesis of Thurber’s Mitty. Goldwyn did end up hiring Thurber to contribute to the script, but most of his suggestions were ignored. And the ones that were used—a melancholy Irish daydream, lots of small talk between Mitty and his mother, girlfriend and boss—tested poorly during previews. Audiences thought they slowed down the action, and many of the scenes were deleted.
John: One of Kaye’s cinematic failures was the Howard Hawks directed A SONG IS BORN, which I personally have not seen, a remake of Hawks earlier film, BALL of FIRE. No one associated with the film seemed to have liked the end results. Interesting enough I recently read an article by Richard Brody of THE NEW YORKER who in a DVD review praised the film saying, “A SONG IS BORN is an improvement on BALL OF FIRE.” He liked Kaye better in the same role Gary Cooper portrayed in the original. I just wondered what your thoughts are on that.
David: I disagree. Kaye looks miserable and constipated. He rarely smiles. And in a musical about music filled with musicians, he doesn’t sing a single song! The character fit Cooper better, and the supporting characters are much better defined in Ball of Fire. The ten or so writers involved agreed—and demanded their names be kept off the credits. But your mileage may vary.
John: Can you talk a bit about how Danny got the role in WHITE CHRISTMAS?
David: The movie began in the late 1940s, with Paramount desperate for a way to make another movie out of the song “White Christmas,” which through and after World War II had become a monster hit. Irving Berlin and Norman Krasna had created an unproduced Broadway musical, Stars on My Shoulders, about two GIs who put on a show to help out their retired general after the war. Paramount figured they could use the songs and rewrite the play for characters similar to those Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire played in Holiday Inn. But Astaire pulled out and then his replacement, Donald O’Connor, caught Q fever from Francis the Talking Mule. He wouldn’t be able to make a movie for a year. Danny was on the lot finishing up Knock on Wood, so Paramount begged him to replace O’Connor. Kaye didn’t want to do it, but was also negotiating a second two-picture distribution deal. So he made a ridiculous request: $200,000 (more than twice what O’Connor was to make) plus 10 percent of the profits (which were already slated to be shared in thirds by Paramount, Crosby and Berlin). To his shock, Paramount agreed to the 200K, Crosby and Berlin each gave up 5 percent of their share, and Kaye’s Knock on Wood writers, Norman Panama and Mel Frank, were allowed to rewrite the script for Danny. It turned out to be the most lucrative deal of his life.
John: The COURT JESTER is generally considered Danny’s best film yet it lost money during its initial release. Like many great films it seems to have been discovered years later by a later generation. What made this film rise to the top?
David: It was well received when it was released in 1956, but had cost so much to produce, that it was doomed to lose money. It was billed as an epic, the most expensive comedy ever made. But Danny’s star had begun to fade. He had been off movie screens for two years, traveling the world for UNICEF. Several years later, The Court Jester started to be shown on TV, without all the expectations, and it could be enjoyed as the wonderful, hilarious movie that it is.
John: Kaye worked with some prominent actresses during his career, most often with Virginia Mayo and Vera-Ellen and Eve Arden, however, the most unusual was his pairing Swedish actress/director Mai Zetterling who made her one and only Hollywood film with Kaye in KNOCK ON WOOD, a fun film. How did that come about?
David: Kaye saw her on stage during a trip to London in 1953. He demanded the role of the psychiatrist be rewritten for her. But Zetterling hated her experience in Hollywood—and vowed never to do it again.
John: I read somewhere, and honestly don’t remember where, that Kaye can be looked at as a predecessor to the rubber faced comics of the future like Jerry Lewis and more recently Jim Carrey. Do you think that is an accurate statement?
David: Well, only in the sense that he had a rubbery face! But Kaye used his in different, more refined ways: to accompany dialects, to create characters, in addition to making silly faces for the sole purpose of looking silly or to accompany a pratfall. For proof, watch Frank Tashlin’s movie The Man from the Diners Club. It’s Danny Kaye trapped in a Jerry Lewis movie, reacting to unbelievable sight gags. It’s not a horrible movie; it just doesn’t feel right.
John: I was surprised to see the who some writers were on The Danny Kaye Show over its four years on the air, Paul Mazursky, Larry Tucker, Larry Gelbart, Mel Tolkin among so many others. It would be great to see his show come out on DVD. Any good rumors?
David: Yes, it was a first class staff and they produced a first class show. Unfortunately, the episodes have been locked away since they first aired in the 1960s, although some random clips were compiled into a “Best of” VHS tape forever ago. Fortunately, Kaye’s daughter, Dena, is just beginning to open that vault, as part of a Centennial Celebration she is spearheading. She just released two of the Christmas episodes on DVD and, if it’s successful, more will come.
John: Do you think Kaye’s films and his career in general are due for a reevaluation?
David: Absolutely. I understand that some of what he did best, the whimsy, doesn’t hold up well. But so much does. White Christmas and The Court Jester endure, despite Danny becoming increasingly forgotten. Those movies are perfect gateways to 15 other mostly wonderful movies, 127 hours of variety show programming, and 200 audio recordings, from the heart-warming to the hilarious.
John: Danny’s charity work was also a big part of his life especially his work with UNICEF. How did he become involved in that?
David: Danny never enjoyed interviews, or talk shows, or doing promotional work. He hated playing Personable Celebrity on his days off. And what he increasingly enjoyed, appearing on stage, wasn’t a form of mass entertainment. So by the early 1950s, his agent thought he needed a rapport with the general public. About that time, Danny ended up next to the head of UNICEF on a plane flight. Their work, helping the impoverished children of the world, touched him deeply. And he agreed to start traveling to promote the organization, as he would tirelessly for the remaining 32 years of his life.
John: Can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming centennial celebration that is coming up in January of next year?
David: Dena is trying to bring some long-overdue attention back to the work of her father, as well as to her mother. There will be tributes, concerts, film festivals, a new biographical website, DVDs, CDs, and other merchandise and events, rolling out over the next 12 months. Oh, and a real neat book, too!
John: Thank you David for taking the time to do this. The book is an absorbing and informative read that I am sure classic film lovers will enjoy.