Entertainment, Enjoyment and Danny Kaye

Warren Kinston 30. September 2012 12:00

Have you ever played that game of having your life over again—but as a person of your choosing?  If I had to choose, I would come back as that embodiment of entertainment and enjoyment: Danny Kaye.

Danny Kaye & Sylvia Fine

Danny, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind my familiarity, was an entertainer in every fibre of his being.  He started by entertaining school-mates, never finished high school and after a run of pointless menial jobs went professional at 20.  Of course, the early years were tough: no matter how good you are, success never falls into your lap.

But Danny was a phenomenon, and when he partnered with and soon married Sylvia Fine (see photo), a song writer, his talent became magnificent.  He was an all-rounder: excellent as an actor, a dancer, a singer, a mimic, and above all a comedian.  You can see it all in the gypsy song from Hollywood’s adaptation of Gogol’s Inspector GeneralWill he drink that poisoned wine?

Through the magic of YouTube I have recently found myself relaxing by re-visiting clips of his performances.  It must be half a century since I heard him explain the manic depressive film plot from the film that made him an instant hit: Up in Arms (1944).

Like most film actors, Danny Kaye found an acting persona that suited him. He was in some way an early version of Woody Allen … before neuroticism and psychoanalysis became fashionable: the bumbling, anxious, shy person—much like me (if not you). The plot then involved his good nature leading him to be helplessly drawn into situations which were invariably tricky and confused, if not outright dangerous.  Often he was assumed by others to be a hero or had to pretend to be a hero.

In The Court Jester (1956) he described himself as a maladjusted jester, but also enjoyed pretending to be the Black Fox, the Robin Hood character.  In one marvellous scene in this film, he switches between being an incompetent swordsman (the real him) and a master swordsman (the product of his imagination) at the snap of his own fingers.

It doesn’t take much insight to see that this is me: bringing most of my problems on myself by getting lost in my own imagination.  There’s my pathetic self that struggles to cope on a day to day basis, and then there's this ideal image I have of being superbly competent, perfectly balanced, dealing with demons and putting everyone at their ease.

These disruptive inner demons appear in the films as villains, spies and even police out to get him.  Social embarrassment is intrinsic to anyone's attempts to escape or put things right.  To be doubly sure we get the point, films often make Danny's embarrassment emerge on stage in front of a large audience.  I love the conductor desperately trying to keep the performance going normally: it reminds me of my parents and later friends and wife desperate at my unintended disruptions of everyday social occasions.  See what you make of the ballet scene from Knock on Wood (1954).

The dangers faced were usually life and death.  If he can only remember that the pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle, and the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true, Danny will be OK.  Oops.  No, he won't.  There's been a change: they broke the chalice from the palace, and replaced it with a flagon with the dragon—and then switched the poison.  Got it?  It's silly—but this one became a classic. 

With his gift for mimicry and double identities, he was a natural for James Thurber’s Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).  That is where you will find two of Sylvia Fine’s masterpieces: Anatole of Paris, and the Symphony for an Unstrung Tongue.

Because of the uniqueness of his talents, films were written specially for him.  Moss Hart and Ben Hecht put together a screenplay and with the genius of Frank Loesser created something to enchant children of all ages: Hans Christian Andersen (1952).  It is pure fantasy: as it should be.  But the Danes loved it: their Queen knighted him in 1983.  I do hope that a time will never come when children stop seeing it.

There were other films of course: most were gems and I will leave you to explore them.  But I particularly loved Me and the Colonel (1958) where he played a rather untypical role for which he won a Golden Globe award.  The punchline is worth remembering when you are in a really really tight spot: there are always two possibilities.

In the late 1950’s, Danny entered the world of television and had his own variety show for several years singing with the greats.  He became a staple of the entertainment industry, not only appearing in films but also on stage and in episodes of favourites from The Muppets to The Twilight Zone.  He also had a deep love of music and, though uneducated, was invited to conduct symphony orchestras.  He used this skill to raise millions of dollars for a musicians’ charity.  You can watch him conducting the New York Philharmonic, but I would much prefer you to hear him crooning Ballin' the Jack (original from On the Riviera is unavailable), see him singing a lullaby to his daughter and swinging it with Louis Armstrong (both from The Five Pennies).

The point is that whatever role Danny played, wherever he performed, whenever he sang, he radiated a warmth of spirit, a gentle humour and a goodness of heart.  His was not the comedy of humiliation, of profanity or vulgarity, of sarcasm, of sexual innuendo or misogyny.  It was the comedy of pure childhood joy: it transcended language and culture. 

And his was not just a stage persona.  Danny put enormous time and energy into bringing happiness to children and worked for many years, starting in 1954, with UNICEF (United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund) travelling the world as its ambassador.  He was so identified that when UNICEF was awarded the Nobel in 1965, he was chosen as the person to accept the Prize on its behalf. 

So, do you understand why I would like to have been Danny?  Imperfect as we all are, we can each do something good.  Danny was somehow an amazing vehicle of natural enjoyment and innocent play who engaged people immediately and directly where it matters.

I’m no defender of any Panglossian philosophy.  God knows that we don’t treat ourselves or each other as well as we might.  You can see my assessment of what we are (not) good at in a recent blog.  But if humanity at large is to grow more enlightened, then it has to be based on an unequivocal affirmation that life is good.  If it weren’t so, then why try to make it better?  And if we are going to make that effort, then its foundations have to rest on our capacity for enjoyment.  There is no alternative.  Enjoyment is the spiritual foundation on which anything higher or deeper rests. 

In that spirit, I will let Danny have the last word, tune and dance—which just happens to be an introduction: enjoy it here.


PS. This is not just my personal view of enjoyment … a taxonomy discovery soon to be posted explains how and why.  See you there soon!


Tags: , , , ,

Great People

Previous Blogs

Tag Cloud

About the Author

Warren Kinston is the creator of the THEE-Online website as an open forum for the further discovery and development of THEE. He writes this blog as an escape valve for the excitement and frustrations of the work. More info here.

More about the THEE-Online Project

Subscribe to RSS to know when new THEE frameworks are posted.

Register for the TOP Newsletter, currently about quarterly.

Visitor Map