Editorial review of The Five Pennies (1959) starring Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong, courtesy of Amazon.com
Danny Kaye shows off his keen musical sense in the lead role of The Five Pennies, the life story of cornet master Red Nichols–or at least the Hollywood version of Nichols’ life. The movie gets off to a kicky start as Nichols joins a big-city band, meets his future wife (Barbara Bel Geddes), and sits in on a speakeasy session with Louis Armstrong. Armstrong’s in the movie a lot, and there are smaller roles for other musical names such as Bob Crosby and Ray Anthony. The tunes include a batch of standards but also new songs written by Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye’s wife and the creator of his signature wordplay routines. The film’s main dramatic device–that Nichols eventually sacrifices his career to care for a sick daughter–must be slogged through while the decent jazz sequences come and go. Whether you’re a Danny Kaye fan or not, this film emphasizes his very real musical “touch” (in his manner, not his cornet playing; Red Nichols dubbed the horn himself). It also proved Kaye could handle melodrama at least as easily as frantic comedy, and yet this 1959 film was near the end of his run as a movie actor. Director Melville Shavelson, most associated with comedy, does an atmospheric job of staging the jazz numbers, especially in the colorful clubs. This is well-served by a snazzy transfer to DVD–even the opening credits are a treat, a cool example of late-1950s graphic design. —Robert Horton
Songs in The Five Pennies
- The Five Pennies
- Follow that Leader
- Lullaby in Ragtime
- Goodnight – Sleep Tight
- When the Saints Go Marching In
- My Blue Heaven
- After You’ve Gone
- Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home?
- The Battle Hymn of the Republic
- Carnival of Venice
- Bridal Chorus
- (Back Home Again in) Indiana
- Washington and Lee Swing
- Runnin’ Wild
- The Music Goes Round and Round
- Wail of the Winds
- Jingle Bells
- Largo al factotum
- (You Came Along from) Out of Nowhere
- Just the Blues
- Back Bay Shuffle
- Mary Had a Little Lamb
Trivia for The Five Pennies (1959)
- While Danny Kaye worked hard to be able to accurately fake playing cornet, it was the real Red Nichols who provided all of the cornet playing for Kaye in this movie.
- The exaggerated tango Danny Kaye did with the blonde Charleston dancer (Lizanne Truex) in the nightclub scene was not scripted. The rehearsals only called for her to do the Charleston, then flit offstage. During one of them Danny suddenly grabbed her and began hamming it up, with Lizanne quickly ad-libbing. Director Melville Shavelson liked it and added it to the routine.
- Keep an eye out for a cameo by Bob Hope and the crack Danny Kaye makes about him, as he, Barbara Bel Geddes and a very young Tuesday Weld wait to get into the Brown Derby restaurant.
- Blanche Sweet’s last feature film.