Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Following in the successful footsteps of the James Stewart/Anthony Mann The Glenn Miller Story, this musical bio of trumpet great Red Nichols avoids most of the pitfalls of the genre. Music bios traditionally lean heavily on the composer/performer's big hits while exaggerating reality to fit the outlandish demands of Hollywood drama. Glenn Miller was elevated to an idealized fantasy, an image of a swing bandleader approaching sainthood.
The lesser-known Red Nichols is allowed to be more humanly flawed, and The Five Pennies does an admirable job of incorporating his personal family tragedies. The problem is the producers' inclination to billboard star Danny Kaye's screen personality. Kaye's exceptionally good dramatic performance is frequently undercut by cutesy nods toward his pixieish earlier persona.
Ambitious Ogden trumpet player Loring "Red" Nichols (Danny Kaye) comes to New York and falls in love with singer and jazz fan Bobbie Meredith (Barbara Bel Geddes). They marry even though she disapproves of his unpredictable habit of getting fired for causing disruptions on stage. Poverty is close when Red starts making hits with his Dixieland-flavored arrangements, and forms a successful touring band he names The Five Pennies. But all is not perfect - they have a daughter Dorothy who spends too much time on the road and hanging out in nightclubs - at age six. Red and Bobbie decide to send her away to boarding school, which turns out to be a tragic mistake.
The Five Pennies was a big family hit in 1959. Not only did it attract a number of award nominations, it attracted a lot of converts to Danny Kaye as a serious actor. He's marvelous as an enthusiastic trumpet player with talent, ego and a genuine liking for people. The Glenn Miller Story approaches its subject as if the trombonist had no flaws, but The Five Pennies shows Red Nichols constantly at odds with his chosen profession. Nichols popularized the New Orleans Dixie sound (read: Black) in white dance bands of the late 1920s and as such is given solid support from Louis Armstrong. Their musical duets are great fun, and while modern viewers may quickly note that there's no personal interaction between the men off the bandstand, it's basically a professional relationship.
James Stewart had June Allyson, the 1950's ideal wife, always supportive and nurturing. Allyson sacrifices a lot to Stewart's musical ambition, including the opportunity to have children, only to be robbed of her man in a bittersweet finale. Red Nichols was still alive when The Five Pennies was filmed (it's him we hear when Kaye mimes the trumpet playing) so there's no tragedy at the final curtain. Later chapters may soften the details of Red's home life but inconvenient details are not swept under the rug, as with the bizarre Cole Porter bio Night and Day.
Kaye has the superb actress Barbara Bel Geddes on his side. Her rich character fills in the missing gaps in Kaye's performance and makes the rest of the movie a charm to watch. When the intelligent Bel Geddes has issues with Red, we know it's a serious problem. June Allyson solved every problem by standing by her man, but The Five Pennies paints a marriage that's at least a little more credible.
Kaye's Red Nichols is excitable, nervy, and prone to lose jobs by telling bandleaders that someday soon he'll be the boss. Marriage to Barbara Bel Geddes' Bobbie doesn't slow him down, as he continually chooses an erratic path to touring success over holding a steady job. Eventually, the responsibilities of child-rearing get in the way in a curiously ambivalent set of scenes showing Nichols taking his 6 year-old daughter (Susan Gordon) along with him to visit clubs at 2 A.M. This leads indirectly to a life-threatening childhood illness, handled with surprising tact and sensitivity, and thankfully without the old 'patch up the marriage to save the child' clichés. Instead, Nichols wallows in self-loathing and swears to never play again, tossing his beloved horn into San Francisco Bay.
The Five Pennies gets some notes exactly right, especially when it comes to sidestepping mawkish content. At one point Red prepares to entertain polio victims in a children's ward, the kind of excruciating scene that mars pictures like Interrupted Melody and An Affair to Remember. But the film respectfully cuts to other action instead.
On the other hand, the film veers from its dramatic course several times to cater to fan expectations involving Danny Kaye's famous clown act. He does a couple of songs that feature very non-Red Nichols tongue-twisters, and an extended comedy montage showing the 'irrepressible' Red ruining various radio appearances falls completely flat. As good as Kaye is in the surprisingly low-key dramatic scenes, these departures keep The Five Pennies from succeeding 100%.
The script also becomes a bit strident at the end, to provide an uplifting scene when Red's belated comeback turns into a sentimental reunion of stars. But our investment in the characters is such that it remains a satisfying picture of its kind.
Harry Guardino has the thankless role of Red's old buddy, a womanizer who comes to envy Nichols' family life. Bobby Troup and Ray Anthony play real-life bandleaders -- it's repeatedly hinted that Nichols was a creative force helping to spawn talent like Glenn Miller, Jimmy Dorsey and others. Susan Gordon is excellent as the young Dorothy, cute but not syrupy (she's the daughter of Z-monster moviemaker Bert I.Gordon). Sixteen year-old Tuesday Weld is Dorothy as a dreamboat teenager. She puzzles over happy memories of her dad, now a wartime ship builder with a bitter attitude. Director Melville Shavelson is not often listed as a top talent, but The Five Pennies is admirable in its restraint -- the issue of Dorothy's polio affliction is never used for cheap sentiment.
Paramount's DVD of The Five Pennies is a desirable title for another reason - it's a sparklingly vibrant enhanced transfer of the VistaVision film, with eye-popping color. Art Director Tambi Larsen and Cinematographer Daniel Fapp dazzle us with hues, starting right off with a dreamy title sequence. The Five Pennies must have been intstrumental in Fapp getting the assignment to shoot West Side Story the next year. It's possible that character actor Ned Glass made the West Side connection through the same route.
There are no extras. The Five Pennies' fan base must be greying now, as it appealed mainly to an over-40 crowd when it was new. But those who catch up with it will at the very least be rewarded with a stunningly good transfer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Five Pennies rates:
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent (5.1 surround, mono)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 16, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson