Monday, August 13, 2018

A Song Is Born: Fabulous Music But a Waste of Danny Kaye

Danny Kaye as Hobart Frisbee.
A musical remake of Ball of Fire must have been one of the easiest pitches of all time. After all, the original 1941 comedy--penned by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett--was about a bunch of academics writing an encyclopedia about music. Ball of Fire starred Gary Cooper as a naïve musicologist and Barbara Stanwyck as a brash nightclub singer who shakes up his world. The remake, A Song Is Born substitutes Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. It retains the plot, adds songs, and features many of the finest musicians working in the U.S. in 1948. How could it go wrong?

It gets off to a promising start with Professor Hobart Frisbee (Kaye) realizing that music has changed in the seven years that he and his colleagues have sequestered themselves to write their encyclopedia. To gain an appreciation for this "new" music, Frisbee embarks on a tour of New York City nightclubs. This serves as a great excuse for a musical montage featuring Tommy Dorsey, the Golden Gate Quartette, Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Barnet, and others.

Virginia Mayo as Honey.
Frisbee also encounters Honey Swanson (Mayo), a pretty singer who needs to find a place to lay low when the police close in on her gangster boyfriend. Honey decides that Frisbee's Totten Music Foundation would be the ideal temporary hideout--never mind that she'd be living with seven intellectual bachelors.

Given the source material, music, and Danny Kaye, I expected A Song Is Born to be much better than a middling musical that smolders without catching fire. Except for the opening jungle chant number, Kaye neither sings nor dances. In his Kaye biography Nobody's Fool, author Martin Gottfried notes that the comedian had temporarily split from his wife Sylvia Fine following his affair with Eve Arden. Fine wrote many of her husband's songs and she refused to be involved with A Song Is Born. As a result, Danny Kaye "did not--he would not--find anyone else to write material for him."

Benny Goodman as a professor.
Without the fabulous music and a fully functional Kaye, the second half of A Song Is Born lumbers along toward its obvious climax. To her credit, Virginia Mayo tries her best to keep the film afloat and occasionally succeeds (as in the "yum-yum" scene).

It was Mayo's fourth film with Danny Kaye, having teamed with him previously in Wonder ManThe Kid From Brooklyn, and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. She even had a bit part in Kaye's Up in Arms. By the way, Steve Cochran, who played the villain in A Song Is Born, appeared with Mayo six times (including The Best Years of Our Lives and White Heat).

In addition to its plot, A Song Is Born shares other connections with Ball of Fire. Howard Hawks directed both films and Gregg Tolan served as his cinematographer. Mary Field also plays Miss Totten, the benefactor of the music foundation, in both films. Hawks expressed little enthusiasm for A Song Is Born, claiming that he made it only because Sam Goldwyn "pestered" and "annoyed" him into it.

Fortunately for Danny Kaye, his best films--White Christmas and The Court Jester--were still to come. And if A Song Is Born is nothing but a footnote in his long career, it's an still an interesting one that documents some of the great jazz and popular music instrumentalists of its era.


  1. True. I only watch this for the music. Although I do think Virginia Mayo was every bit as good as Barbara Stanwyck in the lead, and I always get a kick out of watching her and Steve Cochran.

  2. Ah, too bad about Danny Kaye and the split with his wife, and I don't just mean the songwriting resource.

    I didn't realize there was a remake of "Ball of Fire". Would be worth it to see Virginia Mayo.

  3. It truly is worth it to hear the music and watch Danny and Virginia. But the second half does move too slowly.

  4. As Caftan Woman stated it is Steve Cochran but the article says Tony Cochran. The Best Years Of Our Lives aired on TCM Feb.11 at One in the morning. (I had already seen it.) Steve had a small part and Virginia played Marie, the wife of a returning military man Fred Derry(Dana Andrews). Virginia and Dana were very good in the movie as was the rest of the cast. I meant Feb. 11, 2019.

  5. Minor correction: The egghead professors in the 1941 picture "Ball of Fire" weren't musicologists writing a music encyclopedia; they were linguists compiling an encyclopedia of American slang.