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Knock on Wood

Knock on Wood(1954)

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Performing powerhouse Danny Kaye was simply too talented to be called a mere Renaissance man; his fans are quick to list his accomplishments in every performing field. Kaye was a top comedian as well as an accomplished singer who made his name with novelty tunes featuring tongue-twister patter-scat lyrics delivered at a dizzying pace. Kaye excelled on radio, on stage, in movies, and on television.

As a film star Danny Kaye moved quickly from novelty status to top stardom in a series of lavish Goldwyn musicals, often co-starring with Virginia Mayo. In these light comedies Kaye often played a double role with contrasting personalities, or a milquetoast who finds his courage through love. In the late 1940s Danny Kaye's performing persona took on a more humanistic aspect, as he became a lifelong supporter of the United Nations and an "Ambassador" for its causes. Kaye's Hans Christian Andersen for Goldwyn shows the star at the height of this new appeal, as a warm-hearted exponent of international harmony. Kaye's movie characters didn't exactly develop a 'dark side', but some of his more sentimental moments express an acknowledgement of the precarious nature of happiness, an awareness of the hardships of life. When Kaye interacted with children in Andersen and in his later musical biography The Five Pennies, something harder showed through the sentimentality.

Knock on Wood sees Kaye revisiting his nervous and excitable comedy persona. Another split personality tale, it makes fun of psychiatry and Cold War espionage, standard satirical targets from the 1950s. The Technicolor production was made at Paramount just before Kaye's most enduring picture, the musical White Christmas with Bing Crosby.

Danny Kaye is Jerry Morgan, a successful stage ventriloquist with a peculiar problem: whenever he becomes engaged, Jerry voices his subconscious distrust of women through his stage dummy, Clarence. During a Paris engagement, Jerry cannot control "Clarence's" string of improvised insults directed at his latest fianceé Audrey (Virginia Huston). When she breaks off the engagement, the frustrated Jerry smashes the faces of his two Clarence puppets. Jerry's manager sets up an appointment with a psychiatrist in Zurich. On the flight Jerry has several embarrassing accidents with a female passenger, and then accidentally sleeps in her bed due to a hotel room mix-up. As it turns out, the woman is Dr. Ilse Nordstrom, Jerry's intended psychiatrist (Swedish actress Mai Zetterling). Nordstrom takes the case, despite Jerry's uncontrollable romantic overtures.

Meanwhile, the puppet repair artist Maurice Papinek (Abner Biberman) turns out to be a spy tasked with smuggling stolen plans out of the country, blueprints for a secret atomic weapon called Lafayette XV-27. Papinek hides the blueprints in the wooden heads of Jerry's two dummies, and more than one team of competing enemy spies is assigned to steal them. Grim contact Gromeck (Leon Askin, later a Russian comissar in Billy Wilder's One, Two, Three) is confused when Jerry thinks his name means "hello" or "thank you" in a foreign language. Traitorous English diplomat Godfrey Langstrom (Torin Thatcher) sends a pair of killers to snatch the plans. Blamed for their accidental deaths, Jerry is assumed to be a mad killer, and must rush to London to clear his name.

Knock on Wood's somewhat shapeless, scattershot screenplay earned the writing-producing-directing team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank a highly suspicious Oscar nomination. At best the film an uneven attempt to weld Danny Kaye's performing strengths with some topical satire -- nothing serious, just good fun. Fans of Kaye will enjoy the film's comedy set pieces. Evading the police in London, Jerry Morgan impersonates a car salesman. The red sports car he demonstrates is a crazy Keystone Kops contraption with seats that pop up like carousel horses. Although Red Skelton mined more laughs with this kind of humor (in gags sometimes invented by Buster Keaton), the filmic comedian who best exploited goofy mechanical gizmos is probably the French genius Jacques Tati.

Another noted highlight occurs when Jerry tries to hide backstage during a ballet performance, and is pulled into the act. Expected to do pirouettes with the other male dancers, Jerry transforms an opera-like number into a comedy disaster -- and still wins the princess. The creative choreographer Michael Kidd staged all of the film's dances and musical scenes. As funny and clever as this number is, it has no real connection to the story. If the ballet scene or the funny car gag were dropped the narrative would not be impaired. Because many of its comedy highlights aren't really organic, the movie advances in fits and starts.

A more successful gag has Jerry hiding under a table where two murderous spies are meeting, doing ridiculous things to avoid detection. The film's spy subplot shows competing agents accidentally killing each other, etc., a comic motif perfected in the later James Coburn spy satire The President's Analyst. Other running gags involving the panicked Jerry fall painfully flat. At several points in the London chase scene Jerry dodges through the same car stopped in traffic. He makes polite apologies to the elderly passengers, who remain clueless and unflappable.

At times Knock on Wood makes Kaye's comedic personality seem inconsistent. Depending on the joke, Jerry is alternately klutzy or adroit, sophisticated or infantile. The well-cast supporting actors (Torin Thatcher, Leon Askin, Steven Geray) are given opportunities to pull funny faces, but not much in the way of memorable scenes. The charming, talented and beautiful Swedish actress Mai Zetterling bears the brunt of the film's least amusing comedy. Her Dr. Nordstrom meets Jerry on an airplane, only to be repeatedly bumped and knocked on the head. When Jerry spills hot chocolate all over the doctor, her lack of a reaction is typical of the film's undeveloped comedy sensibility. In Zurich Nordstrom prudently refuses Jerry's case because of his emotional attachment. Jerry stalks and harasses her for a few minutes, and she suddenly falls in love with him. After a few more unrewarding "featured co-star" parts like this one, Ms. Zetterling left for better acting opportunities in England. She eventually became a noted film director.

Danny Kaye's wife Sylvia Fine contributes several songs including the film's title tune. The psychiatric theme does motivate one musical number, in which Jerry dreams of his childhood and imagines his bickering parents performing on stage. The dream flashback provides Kaye the opportunity to play Jerry's father as well. The script's most curious component is its partial recreation of the Michael Redgrave episode from the famous British horror omnibus Dead of Night. Jerry's wooden alter ego Clarence parallels Redgrave's menacing, uncontrollable ventriloquist dummy Hugo. Jerry can't control what his dummy says either, and smashes it in a similar act of frustration. But once they are used as a hiding place for the plans for the atomic weapon, the two Clarence dummies no longer figure in the story. Jerry uses his skill as a ventriloquist only once, when he throws his voice to momentarily confuse Torin Thatcher and his murderous spies.

Knock on Wood is bright and cheerful but not one of Danny Kaye's most memorable comedies. Working with the Panama - Frank creative team a year later, Danny Kaye would score his funniest hit. The Court Jester is a smartly cast and plotted farce that makes much better use of the performer's many talents.

Olive Films' DVD of Knock on Wood is an acceptable transfer from a composite negative with minor mis-registration problems The film's cartoon-like colors are present but the image is a little grainy overall. The audio track is strong. Had Paramount properly exploited their library for DVD this title would surely have been featured in a boxed set of Danny Kaye's comedies, several of which are still no-shows on disc.

For more information about Knock on Wood, visit Olive Films. To order Knock on Wood, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson