We’ve come to the end of our time with Danny Kaye and it’s was a pleasant experience, overall. None of the movies in Warner Archive’s two Kaye collections were terrible or unwatchable, although I did find two (The Court Jester and The Kid From Brooklyn) head and shoulders above the rest. Our final Kaye film is a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1941 comedy, Ball of Fire with Hawks taking another turn in the director’s chair to helm this. Not having the original to go off of didn’t affect my viewing, but knowing the cast of the original did color my perspective. The musical numbers make sense compared to the past Kaye movies where they’ve felt squeezed in, but Mayo is horribly miscast which causes the rest of the movie to slog to its inevitable conclusion.
Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) is creating an encyclopedia on music and learns that in his time cloistered at the university the entire musical landscape has undergone a makeover. He ventures out to a nightclub where he meets singer Honey Swanson (Virginia Mayo) who he wants to recruit for his project. Conveniently, Honey is being sought by the district attorney for her consorting with gangster Tony Crow (Steve Cochran), so she goes to Hobart’s university to hide out, causing all manner of problems.
I’m planning to watch Ball of Fire and it’s easy to see the tonal shift when you’re pitting Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck in the original with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. Going in blind, Cooper and Stanwyck’s hardened personas lend some gravitas to the proceedings, keeping the plot from becoming too silly. With A Song is Born, the movie takes its sweet time finding its footing. Because the focus is on the cadre of real-life musicians in the cast the plot spends almost twenty minutes on musical performances from Benny Goodman and others, turning the movie into a concert instead of a narrative feature. Part of this introduces us to the project Hobart is working on, but Kaye takes a back seat to the music until he goes in search of Honey. Once our lady arrives, the movie turns into a typical romantic comedy and, much like Wonder Man, there’s a lack of depth to the real-world implications leaving things underdeveloped.
Kaye’s character is such a straight man he’s equivalent to a block of wood. He doesn’t put on any of the accents or gibberish he’s known for, playing the role conservatively. It ends up being a taste detrimental to his performance because there’s nothing memorable about it; it’s pure Kaye and pure Kaye comes off as boring. He’s superior to Mayo as our gangster’s moll, Honey. If you’ve followed Kaye Week you know Mayo’s failed to impress me, and I remain unimpressed. Stanwyck’s persona worked as a gangster’s moll, but Mayo, looking pure as the driven snow, never comes off as this tough woman whose seen her share of hard knocks. She looks like a milkmaid, and for all Mayo’s attempts to spit out the lines like she hates them, she remains as sweet as June Cleaver.
The movie falls into a pattern of musical sequence into romantic sequence with little deviation. The characters are too uninteresting to produce much impact and it isn’t until Steve Cochran’s Tony Crow arrives that any discernible plot develops. Cochran goes from playing a loveable fighter in Kid From Brooklyn, a character who could have become a mustache-twirling villain but doesn’t, and returning to the same one-note gangster he played in Wonder Man. The third act revolves around a shotgun wedding before coming to the conclusion and since you know from the beginning our two main characters will end up together there’s no true impact or suspense.
As I said in my opening, none of the movies I covered were downright terrible; and while A Song Is Born is uninspired in its musical take on Hawks’ original, it provides entertainment and inspires audiences to seek out the original.
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