Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Five Pennies (1959)

It's probably a lifetime since I last watched this movie and I had forgotten what an effective combination of joyous music and tear-wrenching drama it is.  While it is almost certainly a bowdlerised biopic and not just a loosely-based recreation of the life of musician Loring 'Red' Nichols, it makes for a more than enjoyable film.  Now nearly totally forgotten, Nichols' touring jazz band in the 1930s furnished the first major gigs, if the movie is to be believed, for Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and many more legendary performers. However, at the height of his success, he packed it all in, while his former bandmates went on to great and enduring glory.

Nichols is played by Danny Kaye, one of moviedom's memorable clowns with his double-talking verbal facility and happy persona, but more is expected from him here.  We meet up with him as he arrives in New York from the wilds of Utah, his golden cornet at the ready, and his vaulting self-belief and ambition.  He marries the showgirl chanteuse Bobbie (actually called Willa with a mother in Brooklyn) played by a pert and resourceful Barbara Bel Geddes and seeks to support her by taking part in a number of novelty radio quartets -- gypsy, Russian, Hawaiian -- each of which he disrupts with his irrepressible musical talent.  Then he forms his first band and goes on the road with his now pregnant wife.  When their daughter Dorothy is born, she too joins the travelling circus with its late-night poker games and unsettled home life.  Eventually the couple reluctantly decide that she would be better off in a boarding-school while they continue their vagabond existence.  The net result is that birthdays and Christmas celebrations are missed and the sad little girl pines away.  One rainswept evening she runs into the school garden and becomes ill, developing polio (a child-killer with a vengeance back then).  Red and Bobbie are racked with guilt and rush to her side; over her iron lung doctors say the prognosis is poor and that even if she does recover, she will never walk again.  Red dissolves the band, stressing to his manager Tony (Harry Guardino) that nobody should be told the facts of the matter, and on a bridge he commits musical suicide by casting his beloved cornet into the murky waters below.

The little girl still loves her mother but blames her father for her misery, resisting all rehabilitative therapy, until the prospect of their own home -- "with our own towels" -- is promised.   This is where Kaye is called upon to prove that he can be a serious actor; he sacrifices his talent to take any number of ill-paid manual jobs to give his wife and growing daughter security -- but his underlying bitterness occasionally surfaces despite himself.  Mention should be made here of the young actress Susan Gordon, who plays Dorothy between the ages of six and eight; she gives a winning and refreshingly natural performance.  That she grows up to morph into Tuesday Weld as the 14-year old Dorothy is less interesting.  The teenaged Dorothy walks with a stick but is largely recovered and hardly knows anything about her dad's past.

And what a past it was!  The film resounds with renditions of popular hits from the period, although the Oscar-nominated song "Five Pennies" was written by Kaye's wife Sylvia Fine for this movie.  The highlights however revolve around Red's many meetings with Louis Armstrong (here playing himself) and their terrific duets with Kaye miming the sound performed by the real Nichols, but adding his own jazzy voice to his and Louis' verbal duets.  "When the Saints Come Marching In" has seldom been such a happy sound as it segues into "Frere Jacques" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".  Smiles all round!

Eventually Tony persuades Red to try a comeback in a small way, even if he is worried that he has lost his 'lip'.  His new quintet is booked into a small club and it looks like there will be no audience for this forgotten legend.  That's until all the old gang, led by Louis, come marching in -- and Dorothy casts aside her cane.  OK, it's a schmaltzy four-tissue ending, but none the less moving for all that.
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