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Danny Kaye

Author John Cech
Air Date 1/18/2000

Danny Kaye Transcript

Brief Sound Clip

That’s the opening to one of Danny Kaye’s best-known songs from the 1952 movie in which Kaye starred as the 19th Danish storyteller. The film that not only revived interest in Andersen’s life and work, giving him a whole new, glowing public image, but it also made Danny Kaye’s a household name as an interpreter of the imaginative, innocent, playful world of childhood–an association that Kaye sought to honor for the next 35 years of his life through his service as UNICEF’s “Ambassador at Large,” in which he tirelessly visited communities, schools and health facilities in developing countries around the globe, bringing, as one commentator has noted, a “sense of hope and a moment of laughter to the Children of the Third World.”

Born in Brooklyn 87 years ago today, the son of an immigrant Russian tailor, Kaye’s early life was itself a kind of Hans Christian Andersen-like rise to fame from the ugly duckling barnyard of obscurity. He had enormous and precocious talents as a comedian, a mimic, a singer and dancer, an actor. One of his singular gifts was the ability to do those lightening-fast, show-stopping patter songs and dialogues that were the real crowd-pleasers of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and the vaudeville stage. One of the most famous of these signature tongue-twisting, mind-bending bits is from his 1956 movie, The Court Jester, in which Kaye plays Hawkins the bumbling, innocent clown caught up in life and death intrigues who is trying to memorize the formula “the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle….” Happily, the shy, awkward, good-natured souls that Kaye often played in his 17 movies always triumphs in the end–these are Hollywood’s versions of the fairy tale–and like those old, durable tales, despite everything we know about the facts of life, they nevertheless offer us hope. The Russians, among others, have an ancient tradition of the holy fool, someone who seems ill-equipped to deal with the rigors of cruel reality but who nevertheless survives and thrives because he is blessed, and he generously passes those blessings on to others. That, it seems to me, is Danny Kaye’s gentle, tender legacy:

Brief Sound Clip

Posted in Film