Tuesday Weld and Danny Kaye in The Five Pennies (1959)

Danny's Five Pennies is Worth a Lot More

Having left the small town in which he grew up in, cornet player, 'Red' Nichols (Danny Kaye - White Christmas) arrives in New York to become a jazz musician. It is there that he meets chanteuse Willa Stutsman (Barbara Bel Geddes - Vertigo) and ends up marrying her whilst trying to make a living with various bands and musician gigs. Eventually fame comes a calling for Nichols who with his band, "The Five Pennies", start touring as one gig follows another but as does a child when Willa gives birth to Dorothy (Susan Gordon, Tuesday Weld). It is trying to do what is best for Dorothy whilst being a successful band leader which eventually brings things to a head when Dorothy, having gone to a boarding school, ends up extremely ill having contracted Polio. It leads to Nichols turning his back on music and finding work in the wartime shipyards so that he and Willa can give Dorothy a stable upbringing away from the gambling, touring and late night visits too clubs. But whilst having given up on his dream the music never gave up on Nichols.

Take the life story of a musician, strip it down to the basics and then fill it with the sort of musical entertainment which the star of the movie is a master at. That is my explanation as to what "The Five Pennies" is as whilst an award winning musical biopic of Loring "Red" Nichols it often feels like it uses his life as a vehicle for the talents of Danny Kaye to shine. As such whilst the real Loring "Red" Nichols did marry Willa Stutsman, in real life she was a dancer, yes their daughter did come down with polio and Nichols did go to work in the shipyards there is a lot more which the movie doesn't explain. Whilst in some ways it lets "The Five Pennies" down when taken as a biopic there is no denying that the finished movie is packed full of entertainment.

Harry Guardino and Barbara Bel Geddes in The Five Pennies (1959)

Now it doesn't take a genius to know why "The Five Pennies" works as it showcases Danny Kaye's wonderful talents, although it is worth knowing that it is the real "Red" Nichols who you hear playing the cornet on the numerous musical scenes with Kaye miming. But as such there are some wonderful scenes from Kaye delivering the comedy be it when Nichols gets drunk or to a scene where singing with Louis Armstrong he ends up imitating him to Kaye's brilliant ability to perform with children and make it such a caring, magical experience. The thing is that there is so much focus on the Danny Kaye brand of entertainment that when the story focuses on the drama surrounding Nichols' daughter coming down with Polio it almost feels like an after thought, as if all of a sudden they decided to tell some of the true story.

Besides Danny Kaye delivering lots of entertainment there is also Barbara Bel Geddes as Willa but truth be told she suffers because so much of the focus is on Danny Kaye performing that her character ends up under written and relying heavily on Bel Geddes' likeable nature to make her appealing. Else where there is Susan Gordon and Tuesday Weld who both play Dorothy and again it is a case that whilst both are pleasant in different ways at times the character of Dorothy seems little more than a prop for Danny Kaye to perform with.

What this all boils down to is that for fans of Danny Kaye "The Five Pennies" is without a doubt going to entertain and to be honest it is a great showcase of Kaye's talents. But at the same time as a biopic it comes up a little short as the focus is simply on delivering entertainment rather than drama or real character depth.