A few weeks back I reviewed 20th Century Fox‘s Blu-ray release of On the Riviera, released in honor of actor Danny Kaye‘s Centennial, and what a celebration its been. I was fortunate enough to chat with Kaye’s daughter, Dena, about her father as well as growing up and discovering new elements of him throughout this Centennial Celebration!
The Danny Kaye Centennial Celebration has been a year-long effort through putting out Kaye’s works and bestowing a multitude of honors on him; from a full marathon of his films on TCM back to in January to the Carnegie Deli creating a Danny Kaye sandwich in April. The release of On the Riviera has been one of several releases/showings of Kaye’s work, and Dena Kaye revealed that a Blu-ray release of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is due out in December (probably to capitalize on the Ben Stiller remake). When asked about the Centennial celebration, Dena says she’s gained a new appreciation for her father as an actor: “It’s wonderful to talk about such a unique person. I have learned in this Centennial to step aside as his daughter and look at him as a viewer and film critic. My appreciation of him has just absolutely grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years we’ve been working on this.”
It’s also wonderful to hear both Kaye and his wife, songwriter Sylvia Fine, are being honored in this celebration. The Library of Congress has put up a website for the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection which they house, while Dena mentioned “at the Walt Disney Concert Hall [in the Ira Gershwin Gallery], a temporary exhibit from the Library of Congress [is] there.” This may be Kaye’s celebration, but it’s incredible to see Kaye’s wife included in these events, particularly due to her work as a female in the industry. Dena was never privy to the inner workings of her parents relationship, but there’s no denying it had its ups and downs: “There’s no question that if you’re working together as a dimension that makes it more rich and more difficult. It’s another layer of communication, another layer of potential conflict, but another layer of reward and I don’t think you just close the door. I don’t think you just close the door and come home.” No matter what, Dena makes sure to mention them in every interview, and for good reason; they both created magic. Dena agrees, “Surely, without each other they would have been something, but together each of their talents was strengthened.”
In reading biographies about celebrities, one always questions just who said what and when. Dena Kaye knows about this, being a journalist herself, and the toughest thing is having to avoid producing speculative answers to certain questions. “One of the things about my father I learned while he was alive, especially now that he is gone, I shudder to think about putting words in his mouth or imagine what he would think.” In light of biographies which have touted Kaye as being difficult, Dena says one has to take into account his fallibility; he was human like anyone else. “One person said, ‘Oh, he tended to be depressed’ and I said, ‘He was a human being. He had his up days and his down days. His red days and his blue days.'”
For Dena, her father’s life was separate from her’s: “When people interview me, what you have to remember is I was his daughter. I went to school and then I went away to college and I was not involved in his career and his business decisions.” His life was Hollywood while her’s was a regular childhood with a few special stories that no regular teenager can lay claim to. “I went to school, I did my homework, I went to my friend’s house to have spaghetti; there were no locks on the door; I’ve never in my life been to an Academy Awards ceremony….That’s the only thing I knew so we just adapted. I went to school, I went to camp. Maybe not all children talk to their father long-distance in London or Japan, but he was a regular guy. It was a time in Hollywood where people didn’t have bodyguards and there wasn’t a lot of hoopla around them. He just led his life. Certainly, not everyone gets to meet the Queen Mother, or I answered the door and Cary Grant was there, or Frank Sinatra came to my high school graduation party. There were certain elements in my life that were different than if I’d been the daughter of someone in a different profession.”
Special moments between father and daughter were common as Dena says, “He was home a lot.” One great story I loved hearing about was the duo going to Disneyland together. “He took me to Disneyland when I was about ten. I loved it! He was just good company. He was a good sport and he was good company.” She also took a moment to recount a story about her few stops to the Paramount Studios with her father. “I remember going to Paramount [Studios], and in those days the people who were there a lot – my father had a bungalow – and they all had bicycles with their nametag on it. I remember getting a bike and riding to the commissary together.” The thing to keep in mind was Kaye’s intense privacy with regards to his family, a request which was generally followed. Dena elaborates by saying, “My father didn’t really like intrusions into his personal life, so it was a rare thing if he did a magazine article and we all had to be in it; he was very private in that sense.”
What cannot be denied is Kaye’s impeccable work as a Renaissance man, an attribute Dena agrees with. “When you really think about my father, he was interesting for three reasons that separated him from so many people: First of all, he had a combination of talents that was unique. Fred Astaire could dance and sing; Bob Hope was very funny; but I can’t think of anybody who combines it all. Then you have his humanitarian side; working for UNICEF, to work with a charity like that for 60 years (next year). And then he was a man with so many interests: He cooked, he flew a plane, he owned a baseball team. Maybe a misconception was a lack of knowledge about all the other things he did in his life. He wasn’t just a movie star.”
I rounded out the interview asking about films. Dena hasn’t seen the remake of Walter Mitty, although she is “delighted that there’s a remake and it certainly helps shine a light on the original Walter Mitty.” She can’t say what her father’s favorite film out of his career was, but relies on an old adage of his: “He used to say, ‘Whatever I’m doing at that moment is my favorite thing.'” As with all my interview subjects, I asked about favorite films, whether related to her father or not. Dena is a huge admirer of her father’s work, and found it hard to find one favorite of her dad’s, let alone one favorite in the entire classic film canon and every film buff can understand. “I like certain films and certain things. I loved The Court Jester; I loved On the Riviera because of the dancing; I loved Knock on Wood because he was just so funny; I loved Me and the Colonel because he played a Jewish refugee in WWII, it was a dramatic role and he won a Golden Globe; I love The Secret Life of Walter Mitty because I can see the scene in the department store where he puts on a dog’s muzzle and I’ve seen that movie five times and I still am split in two when I see that. He makes me laugh, he makes me cry. I love his movies.”
I’m excited to see what the remaining months of the year bring towards the Danny Kaye Centennial Celebration. A special thanks to Dena Kaye for sitting down to talk to me! On the Riviera is available to buy now!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.