The Five Pennies
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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'd 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
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The film has Nichols writing sheet arrangements which incorporate jazz into the music. From the time when he was merely a lowly cornet player, he's tended to push his ideas perhaps too strongly at people and then having little patience when he is rebuffed. In the movie, he's seen as losing gig after gig because of his unwillingness to adapt to his current place in life, even though he had just gotten married and desperately needed the job. It's a credit to Danny Kaye's likability that the viewer doesn't get annoyed with him and, in fact, the fashion in which he gets axed time and again is played out in a humorous manner. Also, his perfect chemistry with Barbara Bel Geddes as his wife Bobbie and, later on, with Susan Gordon and Tuesday Weld, who respectively play his daughter Dorothy at ages 6 and 14, go a long way to lending Red Nichols empathy from the viewer. The music certainly resonates, but Red's family relationships and his later sacrifice are what gives THE FIVE PENNIES its emotional core. One of many favorite moments in the film is with Danny hanging out late one night with a young, insistently wide-awake Dorothy (Susan Gordon) at their motel room.
The real Red Nichols played the music while Kaye was doing the convincing cornet finger work. I still get chills when Danny Kaye, post vomit in a speakeasy, first plays the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and ends up dueting with Louis Armstrong. Danny's actual wife, songwriter Sylvia Fine, ended up writing four very tuneful songs for this film: "Follow the Leader," the catchy "Lullaby in Ragtime," "Goodnight - Sleep Tight," and "The Five Pennies." Another moment I love is the triple harmonizing amongst Louis, Danny, and Susan Gordon, where three of Fine's songs are seamlessly, gloriously interwoven. And then there's the magnificent "When the Saints Go Marching In" performance, which truly is the highlight of the movie and shows Mr. Kaye nicely holding his own with ol' Satchmo.
When folks think of Danny Kaye nowadays, if they even think of him at all, the movies most closely associated with him are THE COURT JESTER, HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN, or THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY. But, to see him at his warmest and most engaging, my money's on THE FIVE PENNIES. Highly, highly recommended.
This is not one of his outrageously hilarious movies. It's sad and beautiful with a wonderful plotline. A wonderful cast compliments Danny Kaye and the musical score is fantastic-- very jazzy rag. Louis Armstrong duets with Danny Kaye in voice as well as trumpet (coronet). My favorite song has to be Lullabye in Ragtime, though. They manage to meld two different melodies perfectly.
The movie focuses on the life of Red Nichol (Danny Kaye) as a small-town coronet player trying to make it big in the music industry. He falls in love and gets married, but just as he's starting to make it to the big-time his wife gets pregnant. They take the baby on the road with them for as long as they can but it's no life for a child. Eventually she is sent to a boarding school where she contracts polio. Red is so overcome with guilt that he gives up everything he had in the music industry to help his daughter get well and walk again. By the time she's grown up and able to stand again she has forgotten that her father had ever been in the music industry. Red's wife and all his old band buddies want him to be happy and get back into music, but Red keeps falling into depression and punishing himself for his daughter's polio. It ends beautifully with all his band buddies turning out to hear him play and his daughter walking towards him without her cane and them dancing together. It makes me cry every time.
I would highly recommend this to anyone as a feel good, slice-of-life movie that both has it's joyous highs and rock-bottom lows.