The current resurgence of musical biopics (Ray, Walk the Line, and Beyond the Sea, not to mention fictionalized biopics 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin') should only serve to remind us of Hollywood's cyclical nature. The '90s brought us The Doors, What's Love Got to Do With It?, BackBeat, and Selena; the '80s Coal Miner's Daughter, La Bamba, Sid & Nancy, Sweet Dreams, Bird, Round Midnight, and Great Balls of Fire!; the '70s The Buddy Holly Story, Bound for Glory, and Lady Sings the Blues.
The industry was especially chockablock with musical biopics in Hollywood's Golden Age, when the musical was an unquestioned big-screen genre. 1959's The Five Pennies took its cues from pictures like the Jimmy Stewart vehicle The Glenn Miller Story (1953) and 1955's The Benny Goodman Story (with Steve Allen): big star, big-band brass, technicolor appeal. In The Five Pennies, Danny Kaye plays Dixieland-flavored trumpeter and band leader Loring "Red" Nichols, whose career peaked in the '30s.
Kaye was best known for his clowning and tongue-twisting vocal performances, and director Melville Shavelson (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jack Rose) shoehorns in numerous numbers that capitalize on Kaye's talents. But Kaye also gets to stretch his acting muscles in his portrayal of Nichols' career reversal due to family misfortune. The tonal clash of musical-comedic showmanship and sentimental melodrama makes The Five Pennies a bit of a sprightly-tragic mess, but if one doesn't try to sum up its parts, it's plenty entertaining in a nostalgic, old-movie way. With lavish photography (to compete with the rise of television) and Edith Head costumes, The Five Pennies is also easy on the eyes.
Obviously, the music reigns supreme. Over twenty songs weave through the narrative, including four originals by Kaye's real-life wife Sylvia Fine: "Follow the Leader," "Lullaby in Ragtime," "Goodnight—Sleep Tight," and the Oscar-nominated title song (in part a reference to Nichols' touring band). Kaye ably mimes playing the cornet as the real-life Nichols supplies the music.
In the featured role of himself, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong utterly commands the screen for a few scenes (one trio number for Kaye, wee Susan Gordon, and Armstrong charmingly reveals that "The Five Pennies," "Lullaby in Ragtime," and "Goodnight—Sleep Tight" all use the same chord sequence). Numbers like "After You've Gone" and "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey" highlight Armstrong's trumpeting and froggy vocals; a scatty duet with Kaye/Nichols on "When the Saints Go Marching In" likewise proves memorable (if eager to please).
The "suggested by the life of" credit signals the biopic's essential phoniness, though The Five Pennies accurately points out that such greats as Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Gene Krupa all worked for Nichols (only a brief mention is made of Nichols' most towering influence: Bix Beiderbecke). At one point, Nichols gets through explaining at length that he has no interest in playing commercial pap, then performs a silly Kaye-friendly dance tune. In the film's most curious oversight, Nichols' "overnight success" goes essentially undramatized.
Shavelson focuses on Nichols' live tours, mostly ignoring his significant recording career; his radio tenure becomes fodder for a poorly considered comedy montage (later, a Bob Hope walk-on serves as a reminder that Nichols gigged on Hope's radio show).
As for the drama, it mostly surrounds Dorothy, the daughter of "Red" and sensible wife Bobbie (Barbara Bel Geddes). First played by Gordon and then by a teenage Tuesday Weld, Dorothy is enamored of the nightclub scene, much to Bobbie's chagrin. The choice to place Dorothy in boarding school sets off a series of unfortunate events—like most melodramas of the '50s, The Five Pennies spends a spell in a hospital ward. Dorothy's needs (and a desperate bargain with God) lead Red to ruefully toss his cornet in the San Francisco Bay. Will the bitter days to follow ever yield to a peppy comeback? Do the saints go marching in?
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