Loring "Red" Nichols is a cornet-playing country boy who goes to New York in the 1920s full of musical ambition and principles. He gets a job playing in Wil Paradise's band, but quits to pursue his dream of playing Dixieland jazz. He forms the "Five Pennies" which features his wife, Bobbie, as vocalist. At the peak of his fame, Red and Bobbie's daughter, Dorothy, develops polio. Red quits the music business to move to Los Angeles where the climate is better for Dorothy. As Dorothy becomes a young teen, she learns of her father's musical past, and he is persuaded to open a small nightclub which is failing until some noted names from his past come to help out.
Danny Kaye ... Ernest Loring Nichols aka 'Red' & 'Ernie'
Barbara Bel Geddes ... Willa Stutsman aka 'Bobbie Meredith'
Louis Armstrong ... Himself
Harry Guardino ... Tony Valani
Bob Crosby ... Wil Paradise
Bobby Troup ... Arthur Schutt
Susan Gordon ... Dorothy Nichols, ages 6 to 8
Tuesday Weld ... Dorothy Nichols, age 12 to 14
Ray Anthony ... Jimmy Dorsey
Shelly Manne ... Dave Tough
Ray Daley ... Glenn Miller
Valerie Allen ... Tommye - Tony's date with Red&Bobbie
Danny Kaye is known for his comic roles; for his laughter, his singing, his dancing, his light-hearted humor. But this movie presents a different Danny Kaye - serious, brooding, consumed with guilt, confronted by really serious problems - and here Danny Kaye shines. This movie is proof that if he had to, Danny Kaye could have been one of the greatest dramatic actors in the history of motion pictures. There is no question about that. In this movie, Kaye puts aside the clowning to play a subdued, moody and introspective character who nevertheless is still likable and worthy of attention. And it works! In the movie he wins over the audience, he wins over his family, he wins over his friends. And who can ever forget the scene with Louis Armstrong? Kaye's character overcomes all obstacles to triumph and to be loved. Only a highly skilled and sensitive actor could have done the job, and in this movie Danny Kaye proved that he had the requisite qualities to transform what could have been little more than a sudsy soap opera into a powerful statement about a man who, along with his family, not only survives but sets an example for others. For this reason, this movie is a powerful and compelling work of art.
This little gem can be appreciated on two levels. Non-jazz fans who have never heard of Red Nichols will find a fine little "family movie," which despite its 192O's-speakeasy milieu offers up nothing seamier than the observation by Red's wife, Bobbi (Barbara Bel Geddes in a performance of remarkable warmth) that their daughter has come to believe that "breakfast is a cup of coffee and an aspirin." The story of the daughter's attack of polio and her fight to walk again is unflinching and the first-time viewer should pack sufficient Kleenex. Fans of Danny Kaye will find plenty of examples of his trademark clowning, but they'll also find moments of wonderful dramatic and introspective acting.
The most remarkable scene in the movie: a guilty Nichols/Kaye, feeling that his daughter's polio is the direct result of his neglect of her in favor of jazz, promises God that if she survives, he will give up music and devote himself to her care. Sound hokey? Could have been. But the scene where Kaye throws his cornet into the river is absolutely spine-chilling. He stops, tenderly caressing the cornet keys, allowing the happy memories to pass wistfully over his features...then coldly, abruptly, tosses the instrument into the waters below. When Kaye straightens up, he seems to have aged twenty years and gained fifty pounds...a remarkable scene.
The second level on which the film can be appreciated: an introduction to a wonderful musician. Like "The Glenn Miller Story" and "The Benny Goodman Story," "The Five Pennies" makes little attempt to give an accurate portrayal of its subject. Ernest Loring Nichols, from all accounts, was a cool, calculating businessman, nothing like the madcap, freewheeling character played by Danny Kaye. As a cornetist he stood willingly in the shadow of his idol Bix Beiderbecke, whose playing style he strove (with some success) to duplicate. Despite the fact that Bix was the major personal and professional influence on Red, he is mentioned only once, toward the end of the film: "(in those early days) there was Louis (Armstrong), Bix and me--and that was it!"
Biographical inaccuracies aside, the pure tone of the real Nichols' cornet shines through brilliantly, and reaches out to grab the ear of the traditional jazz fan--at least it did mine. When I first saw the film in '81, I was a Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman fan, and knew Nichols only as a bandleader they had played with early on. The movie was a springboard, leading me to search out the albums, and the real biographical details, of the very real Red Nichols.
Incidentally, the film benefited the by-then largely forgotten Nichols greatly: just as the late-5O's dixieland-revival was gathering steam, he landed a Columbia contract, and recorded some wonderful stereo albums of his past hits--and of the music specially written for the film by Silvia Fine (Mrs. Danny Kaye). Though he died in '65 (while in Vegas to play a gig), his music lives on through these wonderful albums --and through the soundtrack on Decca, featuring not only Nichols but Louis Armstrong. Their duets, through placed in fictionalized scenes, stand as a legitimate audio document of two of the earliest and most influential cornetist/trumpeters in history playing together--in glorious, analog stereo. I'll join the others who've commented on this film in wishing that this wonderful soundtrack would be released on CD. (Not outside the realm of possibility: the soundtrack of "Pete Kelly's Blues, from the same time period, has just appeared on CD...so who knows?)
For both traditional jazz fans, and those who appreciate wholesomely uplifting (but NOT goody-goody) film, this movie is a treasure.
When I was growing up Danny Kaye was a huge figure.All over the radio,on records TV and the movies,you couldn't escape from his face or voice. He made successful tours of top rate theatrical venues in the uk,he could sing,dance,act,write comedy routines and song lyrics.His stage act was an explosion of energy and sheer talent.He was-in the ludicrously overused sense of the term-a superstar. In "The Five Pennies" we catch him at the height of his powers as an actor,singer and lyricist(to his wife Sylvia Fine's enchanting tunes) With a strong guest appearance by arguably the finest jazz musician who ever lived and some really clever songs(The Five Pennies,Lullaby in Ragtime and Goodnight all use the same chord sequence). It was a success de cash rather than a success d'estime like most of Kaye's movies,and perhaps that's why his work is largely neglected in critical circles today. As Gloria Swanson said in "Sunset Boulevard,"I'm still big,the movies got smaller"
# 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.