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Danny Kaye's Technicolor comedy On the Double comes near the end of the multilingual entertainer's remarkable film career. In 1961 Kaye was adding to his continued success around the globe with star billing in Las Vegas and a series of TV specials. The restless star was always on the move, flying his personal plane and appearing as a spokesman for UNICEF.
But changing movie tastes were leaving Kaye's comedy style behind. On the Double followed three successive box office failures. The last was the heartfelt emotional drama The Five Pennies in which Kaye played the troubled jazz trumpeter Red Nichols. The mawkish film alternated scenes of family tragedy with standard Danny Kaye comedy touches. The Five Pennies was directed by Melville Shavelson, a writer on Kaye's early Goldwyn hit Wonder Man who had made a career in comedies for Bob Hope and worked with Jerry Lewis, Doris Day and Danny Thomas. In 1960 Shavelson and producer-writer Jack Rose developed On the Double specifically for Kaye. They received a quick okay from the performer's wife Sylvia Fine, who guided many of her husband's business decisions. Mrs. Kaye had been writing songs for Kaye's films since the beginning of his Hollywood career.
On the Double is a full-on return to Danny Kaye's earlier "Walter Mitty" screen persona and the farcical format that allowed him to play more than one role. The story idea probably came from the war film I Was Monty's Double (aka Hell, Heaven and Hoboken)), the true story of an actor in the British Army recruited to mislead the German enemy by pretending to be General Montgomery. Kaye plays Pfc. Ernie Williams, a silly-but-lovable soldier caught trying to sneak through camp security by impersonating Colonel MacKenzie (also Kaye), a stuffy martinet who wears an eye patch. MacKenzie's top aides Colonel Somerset (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and Colonel Rock Houston (Gregory Walcott) coax the nervous, hypochondriac Ernie into continuing his MacKenzie charade for public appearances. They neglect to tell him that German agents, including one rumored to have infiltrated regimental headquarters, have targeted Colonel MacKenzie for assassination.
Danny Kaye finds plenty of comedic material in the reluctant private's difficulties. Ernie suffers attacks of nerves. His costume eye patch covers his only good eye, so unless he wears a contact lens he's as blind as a bat. Ernie is painfully awkward around staff officer Captain Patterson (Allan Cuthbertson) and MacKenzie's blonde driver, Bridget (Diana Dors), who are unaware that he's doing decoy duty. Ernie doesn't know that Mackenzie is having an affair with Bridget until she plants a warm kiss on his lips, and he doesn't realize that the Colonel is married until his wife Lady Margaret (Dana Wynter) arrives unexpectedly from overseas, just as Bridget is taking a bubble bath in the next room.
Ernie stumbles through his impersonation duties at parties and receptions, causing disasters of etiquette. The enemy assassins are tripped up by the impostor's sheer unpredictability, until the Nazi double agent successfully kidnaps the trembling Ernie and ships him to Berlin via U-Boat. Threatened with torture unless he divulges the secret Allied invasion plans, Ernie is placed before a map of Europe. He attempts to confuse his captors the only way he knows how, with nonsense doubletalk straight from the music hall stage.
On the Double isn't particularly inspired in the script department but Danny Kaye and a game group of actors give the show a professional gloss. Kaye sings three Sylvia Fine songs; it was his personal belief that he was a better singer than actor. Preferring to skip rehearsals and improvise on the spot probably improved Kaye's one-man routines, as when he panics in Colonel MacKenzie's office or is forced to pretend that he can speak Russian. The opening reels see Kaye paired with a perfect comedy foil in actor Jesse White, as another private eager to try out a stupid idea. White and Kaye are so good together that it's a shame that the character is left behind as the story progresses. The improvisation method doesn't work as well for a scene in which Ernie, wearing a ceremonial kilt to a formal reception, is coerced into dancing a Highlander Jig. The dance reportedly took eight days to film. Actor Cuthbertson remembers that Kaye refused to rehearse or pay attention to the elaborate choreography. Unlike earlier films that showcase Kaye's clever dance moves when thrust into similar humiliating circumstances, the scene falls flat.
Dana Wynter plays straight as MacKenzie's cultured and understanding wife. Margaret instantly recognizes Ernie as an imposter and likes him far better than her philandering husband. Most everyone else goes through the moves, supporting the military spy intrigues while standing back and observing the star's one-man antics. Margaret Rutherford overacts in a party scene, while Diana Dors seems included to provide a sexy bubble bath for the film's trailer. Wilfrid Hyde-White also contributes a sarcastic narration spoofing serious films about military exploits.
On the Double is acceptable fun for fans of Danny Kaye, yet it plays like something made ten years earlier. On the run in a Berlin opera house and leaping into one costume change after another to evade capture, Ernie appears dressed as a woman, and for a moment, as a cabaret drag queen. He then bumps into none other than Adolf Hitler himself, and exchanges a nervous Heil salute. Hitler is played by the aging Bobby Watson, who began impersonating der Füher in a wartime short feature called The Devil with Hitler and continued doing so for at least ten successive pictures. The moment, like much of the rest of On the Double, is a trip into the past.
Olive Films' presentation of Paramount's On the Double brings yet another forgotten comedy to DVD. The brightly colored enhanced transfer displays the film's entire Panavision width for the first time since its theatrical release. Scenes shot in Hollywood (by Harry Stradling Sr.) and in England (by Geoffrey Unsworth) show the picture's relatively high budget. The audio is in fine shape as well. Leith Stevens' spirited musical score begins with a main theme suitable for a serious historical drama.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
On the Double rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.