The Five Pennies (1959)
Danny's Five Pennies is Worth a Lot More
Starring Danny Kaye and Barbara Bel Geddes "The Five Pennies" is the 1959 biopic based upon the life of American bandleader and jazz cornettist Loring "Red" Nichols. Now if like me you have never heard of cornettist Red Nichols he was in fact a very influential as well as productive musician during the early twentieth century who through his band "The Five Pennies" helped launch the careers of such greats as Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Gene Krupa as well as many others. But he stopped performing as he struggled to balance his family life with touring.
As with many biopics, especially those which cover the life of a much loved icon, "The Five Pennies" suffers slightly from feeling occasionally sanitized failing too feel like a true examination of someone's life, rather than a semi-glossy glimpse of it instead. Although it does paint an interesting picture of this enthusiastic musician torn between his passion for performing and his compassion for his family, giving it a slightly edgier feel to many similar biopics.
Like with many biopics there is of course some poetic licence used over the facts the where, when's and how's but unless you are a real fan of Red Nichols it is unlikely that you will notice. Although it has to be said that the movie insinuates that it was his daughter's sudden illness which was the cause for him giving up performing for a life working in the ship yard where other accounts say that he was doing his bit for the war effort.
What is very apparent is that the first two thirds of "The Five Pennies" is very much in the style of a musical as we canter through Red Nichols's career from cornet player in various bands to his touring with his own band as well as his marriage to Willa. Every other scene appears to be a musical piece with the bits in between feeling strangely like padding till we get the next sound bite. In a way it works, making the introduction to Red Nichols interesting and with performances which include the wonderful duets with Louis Armstrong there is much to be dazzled by.
The last third of "The Five Pennies" is where the storyline takes over and for the most the music takes a back seat. This final third has some tender performances from the likes of Danny Kaye, Bel Geddes and a young Tuesday Weld as their daughter Dorothy who as she reaches her teenage years discovers that her dad was once a famous jazz musician. The trouble is that the balance of the movie is slightly wrong and although it understandably plays to Nichols's musical legacy it does so at the detriment of the more interesting storyline.
As for the performances well Danny Kaye puts in one of his most charming performances, restraining his usual exuberant performance and clowning around for one which is at times sensitive and real, as he tries to convey the battle that Nichols had for his love of performing as well as his family. It's an enjoyable performance which brings the character to life. Alongside Kaye is Barbara Bel Geddes, probably better known to many people as Miss Ellie from popular 80s soap "Dallas". It's a sweet performance from Geddes and she looks as pretty as a peach, but sadly because the movie focuses quite heavily on the musical aspect Geddes gets side lined and in those few scenes where she does appear to be performing alongside Danny Kaye her singing is dubbed by Eileen Wilson. Which interestingly brings me onto a fact and that is that Danny Kaye mimes his cornet playing, with the actual Red Nichols providing the cornet playing himself, not that you could tell as Kaye is completely convincing.
One of the nicest performances in the movie comes from Tuesday Weld as Nichols' teenage daughter Dorothy, it has that slightly over the top-ness to it but is full of charm as she learns of her fathers past. As is the performance from Susan Gordon as the younger version of Dorothy and gives it a little bit of a Shirley Temple feel.
What this all boils down to is that "The Five Pennies" is very much like any other biopic of a legendary musician semi-glossy, slightly sanitized and a strong focus on the musical legacy. But there is also a more interesting side to the movie which delivers a small look at the difficulties which Red Nichols faced as he tried to balance his passion for music with his family life. What there is is a very fine performance from Danny Kaye, with enough restraint so that it is still typical Danny Kaye but a toned down version which shows his capabilities as an actor as well as entertainer.
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