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The Beloved Career of Danny Kaye — A Look at the Actor’s Most Iconic Films

The film star had facial expressions like no other!

Known for his shock of red hair, Danny Kaye, born David Daniel Kaminsky, was much more than an actor in iconic movies. He was a comedian, singer, dancer and able to tongue twist faster than anyone else around.

At the tender age of 13, Kaye left his school in Brooklyn to work in the so-called Borscht Belt of Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains. For several years Kaye was an emcee, and the Catskills proved to be the teenager’s show biz learning ground.  

Danny Kaye movies
Danny KayeCulture Club/Getty Images

From there, he went through a series of jobs in and out of the entertainment field, among them soda jerk, auto insurance investigator and office clerk — the latter two ending in termination.

Kaye had said that as a youngster, he had ambitions to become a surgeon, but the family’s resources made it impossible for a medical education.

Danny Kaye’s first shot at showbiz

Danny Kaye movies
Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby, White Christmas, 1954FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images

The actor’s first break came via a natural disaster in Osaka, Japan. After joining The Three Terpsichoreans, a vaudeville dance act who opened in Utica, New York, the show toured the United States and Asia — and the group ended up in Osaka when a typhoon hit.

With no power, the night’s audience became restless and nervous, so Kaye went on stage holding a flashlight to light up his face and sang every song he knew as loudly as he could. The audience loved it and calmed down. This was the inspiration for Kaye’s pantomime gestures, songs and facial expressions that eventually made him famous.

Danny Kaye movies
Danny Kaye, 1941George Karger/Getty Images

Danny Kaye makes it to the movies

His film debut came with New York based Educational Pictures for a series of two-reel comedies. Usually playing a fast-talking Russian opposite June Allyson and Imogene Coca in these low-budget short films, the series ended when the studio suddenly shut down in 1938.

Undeterred, Kaye went to Broadway, first in a short-lived show, The Straw Hat Review, which critics loved. He eventually was cast in the hit Broadway comedy Lady in the Dark at age 30.

The actor in 1950
The actor in 1950Henry Gris/FPG/Getty Images

He took audiences by storm each and every performance, where he sang the names of a string of Russian composers at breakneck speed without taking a single breath. 

Kaye soon began starring in feature films. Studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn had tried to sign Kaye to a movie contract for two years before he eventually agreed, and he was immediately put in a series of Technicolor musicals. Here’s a look at some of Danny Kaye’s most popular films.

Danny Kaye movies

Up in Arms (1944)

Kaye’s debut was very successful. The musical comedy had him playing a hypochondriac who gets drafted and finds himself falling for a girl who wants someone else.

The Kid From Brooklyn (1946)

Kaye plays shy milkman Burleigh Sullivan, who accidentally knocks out a drunken champion boxer who was flirting with his sister. Burleigh is urged to become a fighter and he eventually believes he is, due to several fixed bouts.  

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Kaye is clumsy Walter Mitty, publisher of pulp fiction, who gets no respect at work or at home. During a subway commute, Mitty is unwittingly drawn into a ring of dangerous spies via a beautiful woman, who takes Walter on her escape route from threatening men.

A Song Is Born (1948)

A gangster’s moll hides out at a musical research institute where Professor Hobart Frisbee (Danny Kaye) teaches and leads. Love starts to blossom.

The Inspector General (1949)

Kaye is Georgi, a not-so-smart entertainer in a traveling medicine show who meanders into town, only to be arrested for vagrancy. He is mistaken for the inspector general, who the corrupt officials think is traveling in disguise.

Hans Christian Anderson (1952)

Anyone looking for the true story about the life of Danish fairy tale author Hans Christian Andersen, won’t find it here. But what they will find is a delightful, music-filled fairy tale about Andersen in which Danny Kate truly gets to shine. In the film he’s small-town cobbler with a childlike imagination and heart, who comes up with his fairy tales through song.

Danny Kate Fact: Taking notice of the actor’s popularity among audiences, he hosted the 24th Academy Awards in 1952.

White Christmas (1954)

Based on the Irving Berlin song of the same name, this movie became a beloved holiday film over the years as well as one of Kaye’s biggest hits. Alongside Bing Crosby, the duo are a successful song and dance team who become romantically involved with a sister act. The foursome team up to save the failing Vermont inn of their former commanding general.

MUST-READ: Vera-Ellen: A Look at the Dancing Starlet From Your Favorite Midcentury Musicals

Knock On Wood (1954)

The wood in this case is ventriloquist Jerry Morgan’s (Danny Kaye) two dolls — Clarence and Terrence. Knowing Morgan is leaving for Zurich for a show, the doll maker buries top secrets into the heads of the dolls, making Morgan a spy. Another spy ring and the police begin the chase for Morgan and his dolls.

The Court Jester (1955) Danny Kaye movies

Many consider this movie his best comedy. In it, Kaye plays an unlucky carnival performer who poses as the court jester as part of a scheme against an evil doer who has overthrown the rightful King.

Merry Andrew (1958) Danny Kaye movies

Andrew Larabee (Danny Kate) is a defeated but creative English school teacher who goes on an archeological trip. Along the way he discovers love and the circus life with an acrobat.

The Five Pennies (1959) Danny Kaye movies

Louie Armstrong played his horn and sings, Big Band icons Bob Crosby and Ray Anthony join in and Kaye cuts loose with his trademark musical clowning as real life jazz pioneer, Red Nichols, a horn playing country boy who wants to make it big in New York City.  

The Man From the Diner’s Club (1963) Danny Kaye movies

This was Kaye’s last cinematic starring role. As Ernest Klenk, Kaye plays a shy clerk at a credit card company. He inadvertently issues a Diner’s Club card to a known mobster and must get it back. Kaye gave up filmmaking after this movie.

As with many early actor’s careers, there came a lull in movie offers, so in 1960, he began doing TV specials which led to his own successful television series, The Danny Kaye Show, which ran from 1963 to 1967. The show won four Emmys and a Peabody award.

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