Up in Arms
At this late date many people probably have no idea how big Danny Kaye was in the late ‘40s and 1950s. His movies were huge hits. His musical style was distinctly his own. He was a one-man show, with everybody else in the films basically bouncing off his enormous energy and movement. Most of what he did was uniquely his own thing, from his rubber face to his tongue-twisting patter songs. Then, just as the ‘60s started, he fell out of fashion. One day we loved him, the next day he was dated, old-fashioned.
I’m a huge fan, but like everyone else, he had great works and not-so-great ones. This one, I’m afraid, falls in the latter category. Possibly it’s because it really was his first, he was still feeling his way … but that doesn’t really work, as it was a big hit when it was new. This is the one that, too me, is badly dated in a way that none of his immortal classics like The Court Jester or The Inspector General never will be.
But first, what I liked about it. We can get that out of the way quickly. He plays a character who is such a hypochondriac that he turns it into a communicable disease. A man can get on an elevator with him, feeling chipper, happy, in perfect health, and get off convinced he’s about to die. It’s funny to watch him interact with people and bring them down, convince them they have only minutes to live if they don’t get help.
Now, on to the bad news. There are three major musical numbers, and the first two suck. He does his one-man show in the cavernous lobby of a movie theater, surrounded by people standing around passively, looking like department store dummies. It is a satire on the musical movie they are about to see, and it falls flat. There is such a thing as too much rubber-faced schtick. Ditto for the next one, on a troop ship, where he pantomimes the process of being drafted and trained, singing nonsense words. Working too hard, Danny. At last we get a nicely staged number with Dinah Shore and the Goldwyn Girls. Maybe it works better because he shares the spotlight, something I sense he was always a little reluctant to do.
Now on to my real beef. I have to say, first, that I’m trying not to be Mr. Sourpuss. I know it’s a comedy, I know it exists on a different plane of reality. But the reality, for me, is that war isn’t funny. At least, it’s not funny in a Hollywood glamorous, Technicolor, Goldwyn Girls way. The idea here is that these men are shipping out to war in the Pacific. And all the nurses are drop-dead gorgeous, dressed in the latest styles, hair coifed to within an inch of its life. And all the soldiers are basically just overgrown boys who like to speak like children or pretend they’re girls for a laugh. It was an article of faith in Hollywood movies of the day, and for an awfully long time later, that all soldiers and sailors were just overgrown boys. Even a movie as serious as Stalag 17 had them, in the persons of Harvey Lembeck and Robert Strauss, camping it up and about as welcome as a whoopee cushion in an electric chair. Dammit, it’s just not right to be so light-hearted about all these men so soon to meet real Japs instead of the comic-book ones here, thousand of them to die with the sands of Iwo Jima in their mouths.
After that, after my disbelief has been un-suspended, as it were, I just keep noticing things that are stupid, and no longer want to cut them some slack. I’ll give just one example, and then Mr. Sourpuss will shut up. Another article of faith in Hollywood—in drama in general, I guess, going back at least to Shakespeare—is that if a girl just puts her hair up in a hat, she can easily pass for a man. Okay, I can swallow that … but if you’re trying to pass, wouldn’t it be a good idea not to wear tomato-red lipstick and a ton of eye shadow? And might you not want cinch in the belt of your coveralls so tightly that your boobs and ass stand out like depth charges? Apparently neither of those things occurred to Constance Dowling, trying to pass herself off as just another gob.
Plot? Oh, yeah, there was a plot, wasn’t there? But it’s not really worth my time. I’ll just say that Dana Andrews spends most of his time looking a little stunned, as if he’s asking himself if he arrived at the wrong sound stage.