The Five Pennies conjures up comparisons to similar musical biopics such as Night and Day or Young Man With a Horn; the latter, especially, due to its emphasis on horns. I enjoyed this far more than the previous two entries, but The Five Pennies suffers from the same issues plaguing all musical biopics between 1940-1960, a melodramatic script unable to balance the music with personal drama. In this case, our protagonist’s relationship with his daughter could lead somewhere if the characters didn’t vacillate between unlikeable and straight-up confused.
Loring “Red” Nichols (Kaye) is a phenomenal cornet player, but his love for hot Dixieland jazz puts him at odds with regular band conductors. He breaks out on his own and ends up mentoring several fantastic jazz musicians of the period. However, his daughter comes down with polio, leaving Loring to decide whether music is more important than family.
After the adoration and praise I heaped upon The Court Jester I wasn’t expecting anything on the same level. The Five Pennies isn’t as bad as other musical biopics of the period, but it shouldn’t be placed on a double bill with The Court Jester. The character of Red Nichols lacks any definition or special characterization to separate him from the countless other musicians or composers receiving their own biopics. He enters the scene as a big fish in the small-town of Ogden, Utah who makes good by going to the big city. Success rapidly finds him with little effort, and he finds a wife after spending a few hours with her, before inevitable tragedy strikes. You witness this same premise, albeit with a few pieces switched around or different characters bearing said tragedy, in other musical biopics and the movie would be exactly the same. It’s a generic set-up reminding you of countless other movies, many of which aren’t particularly good.
Kaye is what’s memorable about this cookie-cutter movie and a lot of it works because of Kaye’s exuberance. Surprisingly, his shtick is downplayed throughout a good portion of the film and generally reserved to the first act. A running gag involves the myriad ways a song is played in different stereotype ethnicities, allowing Kaye to let loose with his brand of hullabaloo. After that, the movie settles into a domestic routine that’s about as engaging as a bad marriage.
Again, similar to other musical biopics the juxtaposition of music and marriage is a poor mix. If the marriage isn’t rife with infidelity or other salaciousness aspects then the music angle has to make up for it. In the case of The Five Pennies, both sides are family friendly and thus rather boring. Barbara Bel Geddes is the picture of perfection as Loring’s bubbly wife, Willa. She acts how the script dictates, supportive throughout but confused as to whether she wants a husband or musician. It’s also hard to sympathize with her cries of Loring being gone so much when her daughter spends a bit of time crying over her absence. Kaye and Bel Geddes have chemistry, but it isn’t particularly romantic because it’s blah.
The real chemistry is between Kaye and the little girl playing his daughter. Dorothy Nichols is played by Susan Gordon between the ages of 6 and 8, and Tuesday Weld – in her film début – from 14 onwards. The crux of the movie’s runtime after the first hour (this is a 117-minute film) follows Loring as he gives up music to take a normal job in order to care for his polio-stricken daughter. Yes, illnesses like this were terrible and audiences find it hard to understand the issues inherent in an illness that’s generally eradicated in countries with vaccines. However, the character of Dorothy is written as a little brat after her illness, and illness or not but a brat is hard to care about. Gordon plays the character as a small girl one minute and then a wizened child-adult the next. She refuses to go to bed, guilts her father into letting her stay up, and makes him take her to a jazz club at 3am, only to get indignant about his visits to the hospital once she’s sick.
Her actions are understandable, to a point. Her parents send her to boarding school to travel and make music so her hostility is defined, but her mother went too! All Dorothy’s antagonism goes to Loring, and other people notice her sour personality; a scene where Loring cheers up a hospital ward of polio-stricken kids is darling but punctuated by one of the kids commenting if being a jerk runs in the family because Dorothy is so rude. The problem is two-fold: One, the kid is written unlikeably and Gordon’s petulant acting aids in this. Two, the script never gives catharsis between father and daughter so it’s questionable if Loring understands why his daughter’s mad. Once Dorothy grows into Tuesday Weld the relationship comes to a heart-warming conclusion, but it leads up to more asinine moments with the girl, including her going on about failing to remember anything about her life between the ages of six and eight!
Kaye’s chemistry with both actresses playing his daughter is darling, and he’s the sole reason to watch The Five Pennies. The music is good, particularly “Lullaby in Ragtime,” although the title song is overplayed. The script is treacle and in line with countless other movies of the era. If it’s on it’s worth a gander, or if you want The Court Jester from Warner Archive this comes with.
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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.