From 1944 to 1962, Danny Kaye maintained a steady career in the film industry making blockbuster Hollywood movies. His wife, Sylvia Fine, was an integral part of these productions as she wrote the music and lyrics for a majority of his pictures.

Danny Kaye in Hollywood

Danny Kaye’s Hollywood career making feature-length, major-studio films lasted from 1944 with Up in Arms through 1962 with On the Double, and he worked for most of the major production studios—Samuel Goldwyn, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox. One of his most iconic films was a movie that almost never came to fruition: White Christmas (1954). The film suffered during the writing stages, but its biggest setback was the loss of Bing Crosby’s original costar, Fred Astaire. The second choice, Donald O’Connor, fell severely ill before shooting was scheduled to start. The studio was finally able to lock in Kaye as costar and have the film ready for a December release in 1954.

White Christmas. Film poster. United States: Paramount Pictures Corporation, 1954. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, 1947

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) was the fourth of Kaye’s films for the Samuel Goldwyn studio. The film was about a daydreaming writer who finds his dreams mixing with reality, based on American author James Thurber’s most popular short story. Despite being a large box office draw, the preparatory stages were marred with difficulties in writing the script. Eventually, Thurber was called in to assist with the writing.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Film poster. United States: RKO Radio Pictures, Inc., 1947. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

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On the Riviera, 1951

Because of his aptitude with characters and accents, Danny Kaye was often cast in roles that served multiple functions. In three of Kaye’s films—Wonder Man (1945), On the Riviera (1951), and On the Double (1961)—he performed in double-roles where he played two characters that looked exactly alike. In On the Riviera, Kaye played Jack Martin, an American entertainer performing in nightclubs on the French Riviera. Martin gives an impersonation of the wealthy businessman, Henri Duran, in one of the performances. Duran, taken by the striking physical similarities between him and Martin as well as Martin’s great impersonation, requests that Martin impersonate him at a party while he tends to business in London.

On the Riviera. Film poster. United States: 20th Century Fox Film Corp., 1951. Music Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)

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Sylvia Fine the Song Writer

As the popularity of Danny Kaye’s films grew throughout the world, so did Sylvia Fine’s songs written for them. The songs from the 1955 Dena/Paramount film The Court Jester, were translated in many different languages and published around the world. These songs were “The Maladjusted Jester,” “Life Could Not Better Be,” “Outfox the Fox,” “I’ll Take You Dreaming,” “My Heart Knows a Lovely Song,” and “Ritual of Knighthood.”

Sylvia Fine and Sammy Cahn. “Le Ciel me Sourit/Life Could Not Better Be,” from The Court Jester. Sheet music. Roger Desbois, translator. Hollywood: Dena Music, Inc., 1955. Music Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00)

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Behind the Scenes

From the beginning of Danny Kaye’s film career, Sylvia Fine worked behind the scenes with producers and directors to write songs that highlighted Kaye’s unique talents. Her work was used in ten of Kaye’s feature-length Hollywood films. In the earlier films, Fine’s contributions were a mixture of previously written material from Kaye’s stage shows and new compositions. As more films were produced, she was asked to write more. Fine’s material for Kaye expanded from witty patter songs to ballads and ensembles. Two films in which her work was heavily featured were The Court Jester (1955) and The Five Pennies (1959).

Sylvia Fine. “The Five Pennies.” Sheet music. New York: Dena Music, Inc., 1959. Music Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00)

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Knock on Wood Stage Appearance, 1954

In the early 1950s, Kaye and Fine created a production company named Dena Productions, named after their only child, Dena Kaye. The creation of this company allowed for more control over the films in which Kaye starred. Dena Productions often coproduced with other film companies such as Paramount Pictures. It also produced The Danny Kaye Show (1963–1967). The first film produced by Dena Productions was Knock on Wood (1954), a film about a ventriloquist caught in a spy ring as his doll is used unknowingly to smuggle stolen plans. Because of the new control that Kaye and Fine had over the filming of the picture, they could be more selective about the script and team. While Fine generally wrote only a few songs for a film, in Knock on Wood she composed a majority of the music—both incidental and sung.

Film Score for Knock on Wood, 1954. Music Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

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Dena Productions and Knock on Wood

After the premiere of a major studio film, Danny Kaye would often travel the world promoting it. This generally included a stage appearance at a movie hall. The routine would be similar to his stage show, but would include songs from the film. Since Knock on Wood (1954) was filmed in England, Danny Kaye made many such appearances in London.

Danny Kaye onstage at the European premiere of Knock on Wood, April 23, 1954. Photograph. Music Division, Library of Congress (019.01.00)

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