Danny Kaye Legends Collection

Danny Kaye: Legends Lives Up to the Title

As with its earlier release, The Best of the Danny Kaye Show, Danny Kaye: Legends is another release from MVD, presenting 6 full episodes, in both black and white and color, from throughout the series' 1963-1967 run on two discs. The blend of music, comedy, and old-fashioned broad audience appeal offered in this collection is as 'vintage showbiz' as vintage showbiz gets, and as such it should please not only fans of Kaye and the featured guest stars, but also fans of the classic variety format and of entertainment history in general.

I never had a deep affinity for Danny Kaye himself; growing up, I associated him with the holidays due to his role in Here Comes Peter Cottontail and his movies being included in the syndicated SFM Holiday Network package. It wasn't until much later that I appreciated his talent and versatility, but even so I respect his work more than love it. Yet on Legends you can't help but be impressed by his commitment to do whatever it takes to entertain the audience. Like so many superstars of his generation, Kaye puts on a show. His range is in full display in these six episodes as he sings, dances, tells jokes, uses dialects and wordplay, makes faces, pratfalls, and does just about everything short of sending viewers postcards with personalized greetings.

The draw of this DVD set will be the featured guest talent for many, and the word 'Legends' does raise an eyebrow when you consider all the episodes. Lucille Ball, Louis Armstrong, and George Burns? Sure. Shirley Jones and Liberace? Maybe not so much. Still, Legends is a lot catchier than Episodes We Could Clear, and frankly, if they want to do a third volume and call it Immortals, I am fine with it as long as it consists of more unedited shows. Musical clearances and other rights issues make variety a scarcer genre on DVD than it ought to be, so this kind of material is always welcome.

I mean no disrespect to Shirley Jones. In fact, her September 29th, 1965 episode is by far my favorite. It stands out for being the first color installment after two black-and-white presentations, as well as for being the only one structured on a single theme. That topic -- the relationship of man and woman -- may not be the freshest, but Jones is stunning, and her vibrant presence boosts the songs and the comedy sketches, even if she appears to flub a line in the opening number!

Also in this episode, The Righteous Brothers make several outstanding appearances, doing a few tunes near the beginning, including 'You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin',' then providing a sort of musical narration in a mock trial pitting the two genders against each other. The hour is a great example of the variety format of the era -- providing family-friendly diversions while gently inching towards a small degree of edginess with some of the subject matter and the 'rockin'' blue-eyed soul.

As for the other guests, Lucille Ball fans will savor her performance in the earliest included show, from November 4th, 1964. This first episode on the disc seems the most minimalist in terms of sets and production value -- they don't even bother supplying a prop telephone for one sketch -- but they probably figured, who needs it when you have Lucy?

The next episode, dated December 9th, 1964, features cast regulars Harvey Korman, who does much of the supporting comedy work in the rest of the collection (fellow cast member Joyce Van Patten plays a similar role in the remaining 4 episodes), but stars Tony Bennett and Imogene Coca. It comes as no surprise that Korman breaks up in several places, but it looks genuine, and at least on this set, it's nowhere near Carol Burnett territory. Actually, you could argue that the seemingly spontaneous breakdown of events in a 'Mikado' parody with Kaye, Coca, and Korman is one of the comedic highlights of the whole package. To me, though, the best is Bennett's seemingly effortless yet powerful rendition of 'Who Can I Turn To?' which is probably my favorite single musical performance on Legends.

Disc Two opens with a January 11th, 1967 episode featuring Liberace, who stars in a 'James Blonde' parody with Kaye, and then backtracks a week earlier for special guest Louis Armstrong. Satchmo's charisma is evident, and his rollicking duet with Kaye on 'When the Saints Go Marching In' is a treat. Another standout is a funny sketch without dialogue depicting Kaye and Korman as two workers struggling with wet cement on a sidewalk.

Finally, Legends offers one from March 1st, 1967 with George Burns. George alone makes this the funniest overall episode in the set. Kaye and Burns amuse just by sitting on a few stools and telling stories about Jack Benny.

One of the more intriguing aspects of The Danny Kaye Show is how it represents the vaudeville-influenced old-school television variety which really can't be reproduced today. It's hard to define, but it seems like the '70s steered the genre into cheesy self-parody. TV variety was self-aware from the beginning of the medium, and this series is no exception, but it was different in its heyday.

In the Lucille Ball show, Kaye deconstructs a theater-based quick change sketch by introducing footage of Ball backstage doing the costume switches. He opens the Armstrong episode by singing 'Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails' as a series of canes come flying at him from various off-screen locations. He then repeats the number with the camera pulled back to show the stagehands tossing the canes for him to snatch. This behind-the-scenes material plays more sincerely than it does today. Similarly, the ad-libs and flubs are subtler and genuine than in, say, Red Skelton's shows, and they provide at least the illusion of spontaneity in this taped series.

Each episode contains a mixture of songs, sketches, and patter between Danny and a featured guest or civilian. My least favorite part of the series is Kaye sitting down and chatting with someone other than a fellow 'legend.'

In one show, he talks to a Japanese teenager who doesn't speak (or apparently understand) much English for a segment that is cringe-inducing but compelling in an odd way. Frequent guest and child star Victoria Meyerink makes several appearances on the set, and her interaction with Kaye is a bit awkward even for a variety show. It's especially bizarre watching the two perform the song 'Vickie' when Kaye biographer David Koenig reported Meyerink hated being called that. This kind of stuff is old showbiz, though, and I'm grateful it's intact in all its glory on the set. For those who only want to enjoy the music, a nifty feature on each disc allows you to play all those numbers or select individual performances.

My only disappointment with Legends is the picture quality. The video is often noisy, and whether it's due to the condition of the source material, the transfers, or some combination, suffice it to say this isn't home-theater-showcase quality. However, the audio is fine, and the shows are more than watchable for those who want to enjoy the series again or for the first time. This kind of programming is so scarce on video that I am thankful MVD is getting it out there, and to me the full, non-butchered episodes are the key.

Just like the original variety show, Danny Kaye: Legends will please a wide array of people. Fans of Kaye will find this a no-brainer, and devotees of the featured guests will find a lot of value in these discs. I also recommend this collection to the larger group of classic television aficionados for its historical value and, perhaps more importantly, its sheer entertainment value. Danny Kaye and a strong assortment of talent work hard to deliver an enjoyable experience for viewers of these six episodes.

Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.