Golden Age on the Printed Page: Danny Kaye – King of Jesters
I’m a fan of author David Koenig, one of the première authors of all things Disney. His latest work follows the career of actor/stage impresario Danny Kaye, a man I know little about outside of watching White Christmas. To the uninformed, Kaye’s hostility and moodiness later in his life did lead to unflattering biographies depicting him as an ungrateful man. Danny Kaye: King of Jesters doesn’t present a straight-forward biography of Kaye himself, nor does it go into his personal life and whether the stories about him are true. Koenig prefaces everything by calling King of Jesters a “time capsule” of Kaye’s career on the stage and screen, both big and small (11). The book shines a light on the public personas of Kaye, and how the actor had to decide whether to play “Danny Kaye,” or branch out. For a person like me, with a mild interest in Kaye, I found myself engrossed in the book. It moves briskly, and acts more as an encyclopedia of Kaye’s work. It’s an intriguing way to present who Kaye was to his fans, as opposed to being the usual “glorifying the star” biography.
Danny Kaye: King of Jesters is a biography interested in identity. Kaye was the master of mimicking accents and dialects out of his desire to fit in as a child. This, combined with his ability to perform tongue-twisters rapidly, allowed him to create the persona of “Danny Kaye,” versatile vaudevillian. A few Kaye’s friends who are interviewed from make the comic’s life worthy of its own show. The reader is left to questions how much of Kaye’s personality was presented on the stage, and vice versa. King of Jesters doesn’t present itself as a biography, so we never fully answer that question. Once Kaye strikes out on his own, leaving his wife Sylvia Fine and first studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn, Kaye is able to create his own identity; however, it was an issue that would continue throughout his career. Kaye found himself unable to work without the aid of his wife, who created his lyrics, and when Koenig discusses Kaye’s first solo show in England it’s there that Kaye finds his niche by interacting with the audience and making them believe they’ve met “the real Danny Kaye” (124). Unfortunately, the trajectory of King of Jesters details that without Fine, Kaye was unable to differentiate himself from other comic actors. The lyrics of his specialty songs, crafted by Fine, are what set him apart.
The biography really shows the symbiotic relationship between Kaye and his wife. In essence, the book is as about Sylvia Fine as it is Danny Kaye. Their relationship comes off as a true partnership, with Fine being the brains in many cases. Fine’s life is a fascinating one, particularly for a female lyricist. She was constantly told by executives to give up and get married. Her meeting with Kaye is described as almost predestined in the way Koenig writes how Kaye actually knew Fine as a child. He worked in her father’s dentist office before being fired for playing with the dental tools. Both also got their starts playing in Catskill mountain resorts. Their relationship is also wholly co-dependent. Fine became the chief creative controller of Kaye’s career, and interview subjects assert that her opinion was valued by Kaye most of all. Of course, a reputation for being difficult swirled around Fine, and the book makes no bones about the fact that she enmeshed herself in all of Danny’s projects, constantly interfering with the production. As Kaye’s career took off, Fine’s interference led to low box office numbers, as well as their crumbling relationship (although the two would stay married their whole lives). Interestingly enough neither could have a huge career without the other. Kaye needed Fine to give him a gimmick, whereas several of Fine’s projects simply never got off the ground.
The book itself is formatted as an encyclopedia of Kaye’s work, and that leads to a very rapid read. Each chapter is partitioned into a section devoted to each of Kaye’s works, either on-stage or film that he worked on within a particular time. Koenig doesn’t waste precious space on plot summary, but interweaves it within detailing the projects development, filming, and release. The sections are further divided by Koenig putting boxes listing a Kaye’s radio or television episodes in list form. Items like Kaye’s work with UNICEF, or his television show, are given a section where the entirety of the project is discussed, but then they each receive an additional box listing the works in chronological order, as well as any miscellaneous details that you can choose to read or simply use for reference.
Koenig includes Kaye’s failed relationship with Disney towards the end, and that’s the tale I’ve commonly associated with Kaye as a person. The story goes that while filming an Epcot special Kaye cursed out two women in a golf cart, who just happened to be Lillian Disney and her daughter Diane. This of course led to Disney never using Kaye in another project, and only increased his reputation as being a moody and difficult individual. Later in Kaye’s life, he would become increasingly concerned with expanding his roles, especially in his Broadway showTwo by Two, and finding ways to stand out. Kaye does come off as temperamental, as well as a perfectionist, but the book doesn’t detail him as outright cruel as I’ve heard from others. It could be that Koenig doesn’t want to get into the salacious gossip, which I appreciate. There’s no denying that Kaye had a big heart for children, and the stories about his work with UNICEF, as well as his interactions with child actors in his works, are touching.
Kaye’s intent as he became more comfortable with his persona was to move his way into people’s hearts. Danny Kaye: King of Jesters definitely does the job. I’m more willing to give Kaye’s films a chance (according to Koenig they’re the majority of what has survived of Kaye’s career). The book is a rapid read that doesn’t waste time with background, or unsubstantiated rumor. I recommend it to Kaye fans, as well as people who have lived off hearing he was a jerk.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.