On the Double
Olive Films // Unrated // $24.95 // March 8, 2011
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted March 10, 2011
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Danny Kaye's penultimate starring comedy is a mildly amusing farce about a lowly American private compelled on the eve of D-Day to impersonate his double, a legendary British colonel. Much as he had in On the Riveria ten years earlier, in which Kaye played the dual roles of a nightclub entertainer and famous aviation financier, he plays both parts via several clever effects shots. Written by Jack Rose and Melville Shavelson and directed by the latter, the picture is little more than an excuse for Kaye to clown around broadly for 92 minutes, but most of the clowning is good and the film, typical of Kaye's handsome, A-budget productions, has an interesting cast.

Sublicensed from Paramount to Olive Films, the 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer of this Panavision production is generally quite nice. Despite some minor blemishes it shows off famed cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth's lensing to good effect. There are no extras.

As Allied forces nervously await the launch of D-Day, Pvt. Ernie Williams (Kaye) entertains fellow soldiers with imitations of Winston Churchill, Louis Armstrong (Kaye's Five Pennies co-star), Hitler, and famed British General Sir Lawrence Mackenzie-Smith (also Kaye).

Col. Somerset (Wilfred Hyde-White, who also narrates) and Col. Rock Houston (Gregory Walcott) recruit Ernie for "Operation Dead Pigeon," with the expendable private a little more than a moving target for German agents plotting to assassinate the British general. Ernie, at first unaware of this, gradually learns that Mackenzie-Smith is an unpleasant, even repugnant boozer and philanderer, openly cheating on his unhappy wife, Lady Margaret (Dana Wynter). Among the many mistresses is his platinum blonde driver, buxom Sgt. Stanhope ("Miss Diana Dors," as she's billed in the credits).

After a disastrous ball where Ernie is nearly exposed by Mackenzie-Smith's dotty older sister, Lady Vivian (Margaret Rutherford), he's kidnapped by enemy agents and flown to Berlin.

Like Danny Kaye's other movies from the late-1940s on, On the Double is a handsomely produced comedy populated by good actors, many not necessarily known for their comedies, making effective straight-men and -women for Kaye to be funny around. Danny Kaye's movies are star vehicles all the way; if you already like him, you'll get your money's worth here. The film resembles the excellent Ivan Reitman-Gary Ross comedy Dave (1993), with Kevin Kline impersonating the U.S. President. In both films the double falls in love with the wife of the unlikable man he is impersonating - who then unexpectedly dies, complicating matters for the double.

The picture is a bit ham-fisted in setting up many of the jokes, establishing early on that while the general overindulges in cigars and whiskey, Ernie is allergic to both. "I'm on a low-salt, low-fat, high-protein, low-cholesterol, low-calorie diet!" he repeatedly insists. Ernie's right eye is severely myopic while the general wears an eyepatch on his left eye, creating all sorts of vision problems for Ernie when he later impersonates him.

The film gives the multi-faceted performer many opportunities to be funny. The climax has Ernie making a completely unbelievable but riotous escape from the heart of Nazi Berlin all the way safely back to England. One moment in particular has Kaye trying a series of disguises hoping to get past Oberkommandant Rudolph Anders (She Demons). Kaye's franticness is so funny even some of the extras can't keep a straight face.

Another highlight is the one-scene appearance by Margaret Rutherford, then on the cusp of improbable late-career stardom as Miss Marple in a short series of MGM movies. As Mackenzie Smith's suspicious, hard-drinking sister, Rutherford essays a typically amusing and eccentric performance. Indeed, the only thing funnier than Margaret Rutherford is Margaret Rutherford speaking with a thick Scottish burr, as she does here.

Despite her presence, as well as Diana Dors, Allan Cuthbertson (as a stealth German agent) and DP Unsworth, talent known mainly for films made in Britain, On the Double seems to have mostly been shot on Hollywood soundstages and Paramount's backlot, though with some extensive second unit work done in England. Kaye and Wynter don't seem to have left Southern California at all. (Another Danny Kaye movie, Knock on Wood, was also filmed this way.)

The picture is exceptionally well shot with especially clever split-screen effects, though the process work to put two Danny Kayes together in the same frame is rather dupey-looking on DVD. Nevertheless, there's one pretty incredible shot where Kaye-as-Mackenzie sets something down on his desk and, without a cut, Kaye-as-Ernie picks it up again.

Video & Audio

Filmed in Panavision with original 35mm prints by Technicolor, On the Double looks quite nice in its 16:9 enhanced presentation, this despite some film damage here and there, dupey opticals, and reel change cues. The color is rich and the image is sharp, however. The mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options) is fine. The disc is region 1 encoded. There are no Extra Features.

Parting Thoughts

Fans of Danny Kaye should enjoy this, one of his last starring films, a handsome production with a lot of laughs. Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.

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