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The Man from the Diner's Club (1963) was as inauspicious a finale to Danny Kaye's feature acting career as it was a beginning to William Peter Blatty's screenwriting career. The comic story of a bumbling Diner's Club employee (Kaye) pitted against a bankrupt mobster (Telly Savalas), whom Kaye has inadvertently approved for a Diner's Club credit card, the movie is a far cry from the spectacular, glamorous, musical color productions most associated with Kaye.
But the lackluster production values, which Variety said would "startle his fans and may be reflected by something of a slump in worldwide box-office returns," were not the only poorly-received component of the film. Kaye himself got some of the most negative reviews of his career. The New York Times started its review with: "Can somebody kindly tell us whatever happened to Danny Kaye, that wonderfully versatile comedian who used to play in lots of movies a few years back? His acting...is so disordered, so frantic without being droll, so completely devoid of invention and spontaneity that he did no more than remind us of that other Danny Kaye and what a terrible thing television has done to comedy on the screen... What Mr. Kaye does in this picture could be done by any television clown." Trade paper Variety was slightly kinder, calling the film "frivolously farcical" with "sporadic bursts of merriment."
Most agreed, however, that the film did contain some funny sequences of physical comedy, such as one in which Kaye is forced to pretend to be a German-accented masseur in a gym, and another in which he tangles with a room-sized computer and thousands of spewing paper computer cards, a scene that might be a nod to Modern Times (1936).
According to Kaye biographer Martin Gottfried (Nobody's Fool: The Lives of Danny Kaye), "an overall depression seemed to have overtaken Kaye's career. Despite Las Vegas engagements and television specials, ...he was in an artistic crisis." Nonetheless, a few months after the film's release, Kaye launched his very successful Danny Kaye Show, which ran on TV for four years. In fact, The Man from the Diner's Club ended up being Kaye's last movie role (save a cameo in 1969's The Madwoman of Chaillot). It was not by design. He came close to making two more features, including one that would have co-starred Sophia Loren, and he was offered a third, but all three fell through for various reasons, and Kaye concentrated on television for the rest of his career.
The Man from the Diner's Club marked the first screenwriting credit for William Peter Blatty (credited here as Bill Blatty). He would recover quickly with his next film, A Shot in the Dark (1964), and would go on to write What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966) and The Exorcist (1973) -- and its many sequels and prequels. The Exorcist would also garner Blatty an Oscar® for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Kaye is supported here by a good cast, starting with Telly Savalas as the gangster. Savalas was universally praised for his comic performance (Variety called him "outstanding"), and he practically steals the picture. Also on hand are Everett Sloane as Kaye's boss, the recently Oscar®-nominated (for The Defiant Ones ) Cara Williams as Savalas' moll, and veteran actress Martha Hyer.
Hyer later told author Michael Freedland (The Secret Life of Danny Kaye) that Kaye "was much more serious than I could have imagined. Like all great comedians he seemed to have that streak of melancholy... He only seemed to be happy when the camera was rolling... But I must say I learned a lot from him -- especially when it came to timing."
Look for Harry Dean Stanton, uncredited as a beatnik.
Producer: Bill Bloom
Director: Frank Tashlin
Screenplay: Bill Blatty (screenplay and story); John Fenton Murray (story)
Cinematography: Hal Mohr
Art Direction: Don Ament
Music: Stu Phillips
Film Editing: William A. Lyon
Cast: Danny Kaye (Ernest Klenk), Cara Williams (Sugar Pye), Martha Hyer (Lucy), Telly Savalas (Foots Pulardos), Everett Sloane (Mr. Martindale), Kaye Stevens (Bea Frampton), Howard Caine (Claude Bassanio), George Kennedy (George), Jay Novello (Mooseghian), Ann Morgan Guilbert (Ella Trask)
by Jeremy Arnold