The Five Pennies (1959)
Glenn Miller. Jimmy Dorsey. Benny Goodman. Gene Krupa. All bandleaders whose lives were turned into biopics. Yet they also shared another trait, for at sometime during their careers all were members of Red Nichol’s band The Five Pennies. Unlike them, Nichols’ biopic is not so much a showcase for his music as it is a vehicle for its lead actor. All the better for it, as The Five Pennies ranks high amongst Danny Kaye’s best films.
Almost from the outset we are treated to Kaye’s schtick. Riled by the notion that he must be a farm boy if he’s from Utah, Nichols adopts an exaggerated country bumpkin persona while on his first date with future wife, Willa Stutsman. After being sacked for upstaging his bandleader, Nichols takes on a series of meaningless radio jobs, performing ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’ as an Eskimo, Hawaiian, Cossack and Canadian. With a wife and daughter to provide for, things are looking bleak until one of his Dixieland arrangements goes ‘boffo with Jazz fans’. Soon Red Nichols and his Five Pennies are in high demand, but raising a child while on tour presents its own unique set of challenges.
This father-daughter relationship occupies most of the biopic’s second half, during which Susan Gordon (daughter of schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon) gives a delightful performance full of charm and impeccable timing. This subplot also presents Kaye with the opportunity to perform ‘Lullaby in Ragtime’ and ‘The Five Pennies’, both penned by collaborator and wife, Sylvia Fine. Another of her contributions is turning ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ into one of Kaye’s famed patter songs which he performs opposite Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong returns for a finale that is sure to produce a few tears. Fortunately, Kaye has previously categorized some of the different types of crying available. There’s the Fat Tommy cry that can be heard from miles around; the Meyer the crier cry, that would be accompanied by hiccups; the Silent Sam cry that didn't make any sound on the way out, only on the way back; and the Joe Whiffenbeck, who didn't know whether to laugh or cry. With Kaye equally adept at handling both the film’s humour and pathos, the Whiffenbeck seems likely to prevail.
as 'Red' Nichols
as Glenn Miller
as Jimmy Dorsey
Nichols never sang while performing. Neither did his wife, who was a dancer, not a singer.
No mention is made of Red Nichols' appearances in film.