Danny Kaye returns in a film cementing several of the tropes he’s commonly identified with: pairing with actress Virginia Mayo and playing a dual role. Wonder Man is a diversionary picture about gangsters and two brothers mimicking Goofus and Gallant. There’s a fair bit of humor where Kaye’s concerned, but the overemphasis on musical numbers in the third act dampens the impact of the established narrative which is woefully underdeveloped. However, you can’t fault song and dance numbers when the delightful Vera-Ellen is on-screen.
Buzzy Bellew (Kaye) is a nightclub singer set to testify against mafioso Ten Grand Jackson (Steve Cochran). Unfortunately, Buzzy is killed and is forced to call out to his estranged twin brother, Edwin Dingle (Kaye again) for help. Edwin is forced to live Buzzy’s life, with his ghostly brother kidnapping his body from time to time, in order to bring Ten Grand down before he’s the next to be offed.
This sounds like a slight, but if you couldn’t get enough Kaye there are several movies where you get two of him at once. It could be pretention on his part – the ratio of him to other actors increases two to one – if Kaye didn’t present the audience with two specific personalities to choose from. Edwin and Buzzy are Goofus and Gallent figures, one a straight-laced do-gooder to the others reckless abandon. Buzzy is dispatched quickly and from there the plot focuses solely on Edwin’s attempts to reinvigorate his life via Buzzy’s ghostly scheming. The focus on Edwin is both positive and negative; for one, Edwin is a drip so the humor’s derived from his nervous shouting. Buzzy is a more exuberant character, particularly in the opening when he’s opposite his fiancee, Midge (Vera-Ellen).
Kaye is funny, but the humor loses its punch when the focus turns to Edwin. The character, and his blah girlfriend Ellen, are just too generic to further the entertainment; even the similarities in their name imply a lack of individuality. There’s two halves to Wonder Man: one features the gangster’s attempts to kill Edwin/Buzzy, and another deals with brothers coming together via ghostly shenanigans. The issue is neither story gets its due and both are half-cooked. Buzzy tells Midge he’s got a twin brother he hasn’t seen in years, while Edwin meets his brother, as a ghost, and is mildly inconvenienced. Neither man provides any pathos to their meeting, as if they were estranged but talk to each other all the time. There’s nothing special in their parting nor their reconciliation. Why were these two brothers estranged? A lack of history works in certain instances, not everything needs fleshing out, but in this case there’s no connection between the brothers from beginning to end. When it’s realized Buzzy’s ghost isn’t going to go away in the end, he becomes the annoying houseguest instead of a sweet coda where the brothers now have the relationship they should have.
The gangster story is also underwhelming with no fear outside of Buzzy’s murder. Steve Cochran isn’t a formidable foe, although he obviously has enough clout to sit back and let a bunch of lackeys off a witness. As with the brother’s backstory, there’s no sense of history between Buzzy and Ten Grand. Buzzy’s reveal of how he ended up embroiled in the scandal is imparted during a rapid-fire sequence between the two brothers with gangsters breaking down the door. It’s meant to spotlight Kaye’s ability to rapidly recite lines, but it makes it difficult to put the pieces together.
Kaye is an admirable talent, and while his skills aren’t as sharp as they are in The Court Jester, he’s fun to watch. His various impressions in the opening aren’t a man putting on funny faces, but the actual person he’s impersonating. He plays well with the trick photography employed, which itself is flawless for the mid-1940s. He’s complimented by the gorgeous Vera-Ellen in her film debut. It’s a stark contrast watching her here and in her second pairing with Kaye, White Christmas. Ellen suffered from anorexia her entire life, and by the time she did White Christmas ten years later, the disease altered her appearance significantly. Her debut presents her as bright-eyed, fresh-faced and the epitome of the girl next door, more so than Mayo. The final act gives Ellen a beautiful ballet number and I’ve always applauded the actress/dancer’s athleticism. Virginia Mayo is beautiful, but there’s nothing to her character other than “sweetheart.” Mayo indeed!
Wonder Man is another notch in Kaye’s belt, and he’s continuing to hone his craft in this gangster comedy. The script is laughably undercooked, and Vera-Ellen is a stronger female lead than Kaye’s regular lady, Virginia Mayo.
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