The penultimate review in my Danny Kaye series sees the actor return to the comedy I enjoyed in The Court Jester. In fact, I found The Kid From Brooklyn as entertaining and engaging as Kaye’s beloved vessel with the pestle! The blend of musical and comedy remains unbalanced and jarring, but the work of Kaye and his returning cast from Wonder Man are delightful. The story of a little milkman turned boxer shows what Kaye could do when the studios realized spewing gibberish wasn’t his only forte.
Burleigh Sullivan (Kaye) is a mild-mannered milkman who can’t catch a break. When he knocks out a top prize-fighter harassing Burleigh’s sister, the fighter’s coach believes the milkman has potential to make some money. Unfortunately, Burleigh’s sister Susie (Vera-Ellen) and girlfriend, Polly (Virginia Mayo) believe wealth and acclaim are going to his head.
The weight of The Kid From Brooklyn’s enjoyment rests on the director and cast, all of which are A-list compared to past Kaye efforts I’ve watched. Director Norman Z. McLeod directed several of the best comedies in the world, including Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the Topper series; I haven’t watched Mitty, but based on McLeod’s history it’s going up higher on the list. It also reunites practically the entire cast of Wonder Man including Kaye, Mayo, Vera-Ellen and Steve Cochran, on top of new additions Walter Abel and Eve freaking Arden! Yes, any movie boasting Eve Arden is immediately fantastic in my book.
Comparing this to Wonder Man is relatively easy considering the cast reunion but brings the flaws of the previous film into focus. The paranormal humor mixed with the harsh gangster story never developed for me in the earlier feature. In Kid From Brooklyn, you see the marked progression of the eponymous kid from Brooklyn. Burleigh – a tough name at odds with Kaye’s underdeveloped physique – is a notch away from losing his job, but is remarkably upbeat and kind; he’s so gentle, he rushes to call 911 when his horse starts to give birth in the street. The introduction of a group of snobby fighting agents, led by Able and Arden, focuses on the distinctions between Old World Americana and the glitz of money and fame from the city. The largest source of humor is derived from the acerbic wit of Arden as she puts down her frazzled husband. In many ways, she’s a better coach, teaching Burleigh how to fight through dance (“da-da-da-da-da, boop-boop boop-boop”). The movie is a comic boxing story meshed with the tale of a young man forced into a career he isn’t built for.
Also, the side stories aren’t extraneous to the plot like they were in Wonder Man. Burleigh’s sister, Susie is a singer who ends up falling for her brother’s chief competitor, Speed McFarlane (Cochran). Ellen continues to have a sunny disposition, but her dancing remains her signature and the best she’s done. The “Hey, What’s Your Name” number is a beautiful mix of ballet and tap with some of the most robust moves Ellen’s whipped out. I continue to be dazzled by her leaping feet. Her romance with Cochran’s Speed is derivative and is only there to give her something to do, eventually putting her at odds with her paramour to support her brother, but their chemistry is darling and gentle regardless. Cochran finally makes an impression after playing the caricature gangster Ten Grand Jackson in Wonder Man. Speed is a big galoot, sure, but he’s also sweet and desperate to make his mark. He understands a series of bad fights puts him out of a job, and if this were a serious movie we’d be watching Speed’s character devolve into melodrama as Burleigh ascends. Instead, the movie’s climax doesn’t portray Speed in a negative light, which is unnecessary, and it’s great because the man is easy on the eyes.
Abel and Arden tend to as if they belong in another movie, one with more biting wit than the rest of the film, but it works. Both actors are having fun, particularly Arden playing opposite Abel like Lucy and Desi if they never liked each other in the first place. Placing Burleigh in the center of their drama is like putting a fly near a Venus flytrap. When he asks questions, Arden’s Ann has a witty retort. “Why all the hitting?” “It’s a living.” Virginia Mayo is given purpose as Burleigh’s steadfast girlfriend, but again, it’s a weak character designation. Mayo is so sweet her character’s name, Polly Pringle plasters a smile on your face. So far, Mayo’s persona is girl next door and it forces her characters to be bland wallflowers who support their man, period.
The movie is still hampered by the drive to go into musical territory, and it doesn’t work when the focus is on Burleigh fighting for the title. The film tries to mitigate this by adding in a subplot about Burleigh’s fights being fixed, but it doesn’t excuse a fifteen-minute musical masquerading as a benefit for Burleigh’s fights stopping the movie right in its tracks and leaving you to wonder if Burleigh’s going to fight or sing. The gimmickry of the entire event is hammered home when Kaye goes into his shtick involving Russian accents and gibberish, but the movie’s script and events are strong and compelling enough that this is a step back.
Other than another generic performance by Virginia Mayo and a musical sequence going nowhere, The Kid From Brooklyn is another delightful time with Danny Kaye. It’s right next to The Court Jester if we’re counting my favorite films of his work, and it’s all because of a smarter script, tighter direction, and a well-rounded cast. Check it out if you haven’t watched it before.
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