Movie Review: The Five Pennies (1959)
The Five Pennies (1959)
Director: Melville Shavelson
Cast: Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong
Synopsis: A biopic about Dixieland musician Loring “Red” Nichols.
This typical Hollywood biopic probably has as much to do with reality as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but at least it has better music. Danny Kaye (On the Double) plays Red Nichols, a largely forgotten (by me, at least) Dixieland musician who jammed with all the legendary names – Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa, etc – before giving it all up to care for his polio-stricken daughter. It follows the usual Hollywood musical biopic arc: hungry young musician, full of self-belief and confidence, comes to the big city to make his name only to suffer constant knock-backs. We see Red getting himself sacked from a number of jobs that have only a tenuous link with real music before establishing the eponymous band with the help of his new bride (Barbara Bel Geddes – Fourteen Hours, Vertigo) and slowly carving out a name for himself in the music business.
The Five Pennies never really feels like a biopic of a real person simply because it’s first and foremost a showcase for Kaye’s comedic talents. He reins his routines in a little bit here, buts it’s really the same act he’d been doing on screen for nearly 20 years. He’s a lot better in the film’s final third when Nichols’ sacrifice for his daughter weighs heavily on his mind, a sequence that calls on the comedian to play it straight – something which he does very well.
It’s a good looking movie, with a bright, strong colour scheme – predominantly red; and the music, even if you’re not a fan, is terrific – especially the numbers Kaye shares with Louis Armstrong. Unfortunately, there’s no real sense of period – supposedly 1924-1945 – and the over-sentimental ending, in which, during Nichols’ low-key comeback at which all his old buddies – now big musical names – have shown up to support him, his teenage daughter walks again for the first time since contracting polio, merely heightens the sense of artifice.
(Reviewed 26th November 2011)