Thursday, November 10, 2011

"The Five Pennies" with Danny Kaye, Louis Armstrong and Barbara Bel Geddes (1959)

I last saw this film when I was about 10. I remembered the music, especially Louis Armstrong doing the best version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." I had forgotten most of the plot, and was kind of unaware that this was a true story - what they call a "biopic", about "Red" Loring Nichols. Danny Kaye plays him with irrepressible charm in this film, opposite Louis Armstrong, who plays himself. Barbara Bel Geddes plays "Reds" wife, along with a very young Tuesday Weld as his delightful daughter.

When Loring Nichols arrives in New York City in 1922, he is clearly unprepared for the "big city." He is a cornet player with stars in his eyes, and music in his heart. Landing a coveted spot in Will Paradise's band should put him off to a great start, except for one thing; he wants to play jazz, and the bands all want ordinary dance music. So what does "Red" do? He goes to Harlem, sees the vibrant jazz scene happening there and forms his own band, "The Five Pennies." His wife, Bobbie, is the vocalist. Life is perfect. Almost.

At the apex of his career, with such future luminaries as Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey in his band, he's the "top of the pops." They ride the wave of Dixieland Jazz, until his daughter, Dorothy, develops polio.

When "Red" quits the music business for a move to Los Angeles, where the climate might be better for Dorothy, he takes a job in a shipyard, making ships for the Second World War. His spirit is broken, and he has seemingly hit bottom. When his daughter realizes who her father was, and the influence he had on the very music she has come to love, he is persuaded to open a small nightclub. He does very poorly, until his old bandmates, who have gone on to become some of the greatest names in the music business, find him working there, and come to help him out of his dilemma.

This is a very uplifting film, with Danny Kaye at his best during his vocal "skat" duets with Louis Armstrong. Mr. Kaye, long a master of fast talking diatribe, meshes perfectly with Mr. Armstrong, who clearly enjoys the collaboration.

My favorite scene in the entire movie takes place on the bus, when "Red's" daughter is an infant. She can't sleep with the band rehearsing, and so "Red" leads the band, doing "Lullaby in Ragtime" for her. At first, the band performs the number in a muted tone, and then, with the help of "Red's" wife, Bobbie, they bring the whole number back to a rousing finish, which finally puts little Dorothy to sleep. Interesting intersection here between real life and a movie. The Song, "Lullaby In Ragtime", was written by Danny Kaye's real life wife, Sylvia Fine, who grew up within blocks of her future husband in Brooklyn. They never met until 1939, and were married for the rest of their lives. She was a composer, lyricist and producer in her own right, as well as a major force behind Danny Kaye's career.

Here is the scene, in which Danny Kaye performs the song written by his real wife, with Barbara Bel Geddes, his on screen wife. As always, the video is courtesy of You Tube;

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