Saturday, February 2, 2013

Wonder Man (Goldwyn/RKO, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran the 1945 Danny Kaye vehicle Wonder Man, a marvelous film directed by (Harry) Bruce Humberstone — he was just credited as “Bruce Humberstone” here but usually he was “H. Bruce Humberstone” and Goldwyn biographer Carol Easton got out of him what the “H” stood for — from a committee-written script. The original story was by former Marx Brothers writer Arthur Sheekman with “adaptation” by Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran and screenplay by Don Hartman, Melville Shavelson (one of Bob Hope’s major contributors) and Philip Rapp, and there was one other major contributor: Mrs. Danny Kaye, Sylvia Fine, who wrote three of the marvelous patter songs that became Kaye’s trademark: “Bali Boogie,” a great send-up of self-consciously “exotic” big production numbers (like Busby Berkeley’s “I Wanna Go Back to Bali” routine in Gold Diggers in Paris) that showcases Kaye’s and Vera-Ellen’s (in her first film) dancing (Vera-Ellen could dance but couldn’t sing, so June Hutton, Betty’s and Marion’s sister and wife of Frank Sinatra’s arranger Axel Stordahl, doubled her); a version of “Dark Eyes” in which Kaye plays a Russian “classical” singer who gets hay fever from the large bouquet next to him on stage; and a closing opera number that’s probably the second-best spoof of opera ever put in a mainstream Hollywood movie (next, of course, to the final scene of the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera). I remember mentioning Wonder Man when I watched the film Smokin’ Aces at one of the Bears San Diego screenings, since the two films are both about wild, crazy entertainers who are also key witnesses against gangsters, but Smokin’ Aces was so relentlessly terrible on all counts that I wrote in a review for, “If you want to see a good movie with this premise, check out the 1945 Danny Kaye vehicle Wonder Man, also about an entertainer targeted by gangsters but made with qualities like wit, compassion, creativity and humor that totally eluded the makers of Smokin’ Aces.”

Wonder Man is a ghost story that casts Kaye as nightclub entertainer Buzzy Ballew, who thinks nothing of keeping his audience waiting for an hour and a half and has a long-running series of broken engagements and strandings at the altar with his co-star Midge Mallon (Vera-Ellen) and his identical twin brother Edwin Dingle, a bookworm who hangs out at libraries researching a book he’s writing on the knowledge of everything (an interesting precursor to Kaye’s role as the lead professor in A Song Is Born, the remake of Ball of Fire in which Kaye was far more suited to the role than Gary Cooper, even though the rest of the elements were inferior in the remake — from Barbara Stanwyck to Virginia Mayo in the female lead? That’s hardly a step up!) and who has the interesting knack of being able to write right- and left-handed simultaneously. He’s also got a crush on the head librarian, Ellen Shanley (Virginia Mayo, who according to Easton got her contract largely because she resembled Goldwyn’s wife Frances when she was young). The supernatural element occurs when Ballew’s nemesis “Ten Grand” Jackson (Steve Cochran, also anticipating his role in A Song Is Born), a gangster whom Ballew’s testimony could send to prison for a long time, orders two hit men, Torso (Edward Brophy) and the hard-of-hearing Chimp (a marvelous performance by Allen Jenkins, even drier than usual), to knock him off. They do so, only Ballew’s spirit escapes and starts inhabiting Edwin’s body at awkward times, steering him away from his long-sought date with Ellen and leaving him doing weird things like asking delicatessen owner Schmidt (S. Z. Sakall) — where he’s gone for potato salad for his dinner date — “I’d like a pint of Prospect Park.” (Prospect Park is where Torso and Chimp knocked off Ballew and dumped his body in a lake.) When Ballew is inside Edwin’s body, Edwin is a brilliant entertainer as well as possessor of the key piece of information — Jackson had his former girlfriend, stripper “Choo Choo” Laverne, killed so she couldn’t reveal the information against him concealed in a safe-deposit box she’d rented under her real name, Minnie Smith — the district attorney (Otto Kruger) and his assistant (Richard Lane) are after. When Ballew isn’t inside Edwin’s body, he’s totally hapless on stage and he hasn’t the slightest clue what the D.A. and his assistant are asking him about.

The film is 99 minutes of comedy, music (in addition to the Sylvia Fine parodies there’s a relatively serious production number called “So in Love” — not the song of that title by Cole Porter, which hadn’t been written yet, but one by Dave Rose, Judy Garland’s first husband, and Leo Robin) and overall outrageousness — highlighted by a scene in which Edwin’s conversation with Ballew in the park (needless to say, when Ballew materializes Edwin can see and hear him but no one else can) attracts the attention of a police officer and gets in the way of a sailor (an almost unrecognizable Huntz Hall) and his girlfriend (Virginia Gilmore) trying to neck. In the finale, Edwin — on the run from both the gangsters and the cops — crashes an opera performance which the D.A. is attending, disguises himself as the tenor lead and, while the rest of the singers (including the star soprano, Alice Mock) are trying to keep the opera going, he sings his testimony against the gangsters so the D.A. can hear and get the key information he and the police need to bust the gang. It’s an obvious knock-off of the ending to On Your Toes (in which the male lead — Ray Bolger in the stage version and Eddie Albert in the movie — is a dancer who has to keep going because as soon as his performance ends, gangsters in the theatre are ready to knock him off) and it was already done even more outrageously at the end of the 1942 movie Ship Ahoy (Eleanor Powell, a dupe for enemy spies, communicates the information against them to the good guys during a dance routine by tapping it out in Morse code!) — but it’s still a lot of fun, especially when the prima donna tries to keep things going and gets in the way. Wonder Man isn’t a great movie — Kaye would be discovered by Sam Goldwyn and showcased by him in elaborate color features with lush production values, while competing comedians like Abbott and Costello and Bob Hope were generally filmed on the cheap, but he’d make his best films, The Inspector General and The Court Jester, after his contract with Goldwyn expired and he left in 1948 (returning for one film as a free-lancer, Hans Christian Andersen, in 1952 and making nine times his old contract salary for it) — but it’s still an engaging showcase for Kaye, and though the plot device used to “split” Kaye’s character is supernatural instead of scientific I couldn’t help thinking it was, shall we say, an inspiration to Jerry Lewis for The Nutty Professor.