April 30, 2020
The Five Pennies – U.S., 1959
The late evenings of the past six years has seen me frequently leaning on the sweet odes of such artists as the Everly Brothers, The Righteous Brothers, Debbie Gibson, Howard Jones, and the great Elvis Presley in occasionally futile efforts to get my daughter to enter that magical world known as dreamland. If you do the math (365 days times 3 songs times 6 years), I think you’ll agree I’m fairly experienced with the notion of using popular tunes to sing someone to sleep, and never have the melodious sounds of an orchestra suddenly risen to assist me in my endeavors. It’s just been my voice and dumb luck. Compare that to a scene in Melville Shavelson’s The Five Pennies in which cornet master Ernest Loring “Red” Nichols, attempting to relax his rambunctious daughter, is joined by a full off-screen orchestra as he serenades her with a leisurely ditty about pennies. Ah, but this should be expected in a musical, you might be saying. True, but no other musical number in the film is shot in this way. Every other one is part of a live performance, so it’s a bit of a cheat. I would have preferred to just hear Nichols sing a cappella
Shavelson’s film is a Hollywood version of Nichols’s life, starting with his arrival in New York City in the 1920s to his triumphant comeback after leaving the music scene to give a normal life to his Polio-stricken daughter, Dorothy. The film is a reminder of the horror of that disease, and a scene in which Dorothy’s legs are wrapped with towels soaked with boiling water is particularly tough to watch. Other scenes are obviously the fictitious creations of Hollywood writers intent on giving viewers what they most want, and so we get a series of scenes involving Red and the legendary Louis Armstrong masterfully singing and scatting, as well as creating infectious grooves with their melodious instruments. Never mind that the film never actually establishes that they have a strong friendship. In fact, their initial meeting is so annoying constructed that it’s hard to believe they would ever form such a bond, but maybe musicians are like this. Maybe rudeness and drunken, obnoxious behavior can easily be forgiven if one of them recognizes real genius in the other.
As Red, Danny Kaye is impressive throughout most of the film, and it is a perfect vehicle for him, providing him ample opportunity to demonstrate his numerous skills. Watching him riff with Armstrong is a real treat, and a scene in which Red leads a crowd of a large night club in a 1920s version of a line dance is so delightful that I found myself wishing to be one of the participants. Come to think of it, why is it that practically every character is a movie set in the first half of the 20th century seems to have had so much time for dance lessons? One of the benefits of not having the Internet, perhaps. Also worth mentioning are the scenes between Red and his wife, Willa, perfectly played by Barbara Bel Geddes. They capture the whirlwind nature of their romance and the conflicts that come as a result, yet they also convey the emotional connection that exists between the two characters and how what joins two people in the early days of a romance can be the same things that pulls them apart later on.
Alas, the film is far too formulaic. After all, how many times have we seen a musician tell the other member of a band that one day they’ll all be working for him? For that matter, how many times have we seen a film end with a formerly famous singer taking the stage in what could be the beginning of a comeback? In one scene, we witness a number of Red’s fellow musicians criticizing his compositions, only to be accused by Willa of not having ever read them. Soon, one starts scanning them and low and behold they turn out to be pretty good. One guess who enters at that moment to sing with them?
The film has an additional fault, and this one lies at the feet of Shavelson and his fellow screen writer, Jack Rose. Several scenes call for Kaye to be annoyingly quirky, and the film is lesser for it. For example, in an early scene, Red overhears a woman disparaging him because he’s different. Red puts a wheat straw in his mouth, exaggerates a Southern accent, and makes comments that reinforce stereotypes of Southerners and their apparent lack of worldly experience. Later, he adopts a Germen accent during a scene in a hospital. Kaye handles these scenes as well as he can, but they have no reason for being in the film. The first doesn’t endear Red in any way, and the latter never seems truly authentic.
I suppose films such as this one succeed if they do a few things: tell a compelling story, contain Oscar-worthy performances, or make you interested in the film’s subject. Using this as a barometer, I’d say the film only partly succeeds. The story is interesting enough to make up for its paint-by-numbers structure. As for Kaye, he gives a pretty inspiring performance, believably conveying the addictive allure of playing and the loss artists can feel when life pulls them away from the thing they love. He has a great rapport with his co-stars, in particular Geddes, as well as Tuesday Weld and Susan Gordon, who each play Dorothy at different ages. As for the last criteria, I’ll leave you with this. After watching the film, I went to YouTube and listened to some of the real Red Nichols’s music. I was impressed. What more can I say? The film did its job. (on DVD)
*The Five Pennies is the name of the band that Red forms.
*If it doesn’t always look like Kaye is playing the cornet, it may be because Red Nichols performed the music himself.