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By the time he was signed to a film contract by independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in 1943, Danny Kaye was already a renowned stage and nightclub comedian. Born in 1913 in Brooklyn, Kaye had dropped out of school at age 13 to try his hand as a "borscht belt" comedian in the clubs and resorts of the Catskills of New York. By the late 1930s he had reached his goal and had also made a few stabs at radio and the movies (Kaye made a handful of low-budget shorts for Educational Pictures in 1937-1938). Yet, he found his greatest success as a live performer in nightclubs, vaudeville, and beginning in 1939, the Broadway stage. His wife Sylvia Fine was instrumental in shaping his material, in particular the tongue-twisting scat songs for which he became known.
Goldwyn saw in Kaye another dynamic personality in the style of Eddie Cantor, and even took to calling Danny "Eddie" in their early days together. For Kaye's debut feature, Goldwyn turned to the same source material - Owen Davis' 1923 stage play The Nervous Wreck - which had formed the basis for one of Eddie Cantor's stage musicals, Whoopie!, which was in turn filmed in two-strip Technicolor in 1930. The final story for Up in Arms (1944) bears only a passing resemblance to either, however. In the film, Danny Weems (Kaye) is a hopeless hypochondriac who gets a job as an elevator operator in a medical building so that he can harangue the doctors. Also working in the building is nurse Virginia Merrill (Dinah Shore), who fails to attract Danny's attention because he has eyes for another nurse, Mary Morgan (Constance Dowling). Danny is drafted into the army along with his friend and roommate Joe Nelson (Dana Andrews). Joe and Mary are falling in love, and after the girls become officer nurses, confusion ensues aboard ship as everyone is headed to their new stations in the Pacific Theater. Of course, the plot is mostly the vehicle to contain a series of musical interludes for Kaye and for Dinah Shore, making her own acting debut (she had previously appeared as herself in the 1943 Warner Bros. wartime revue Thank Your Lucky Stars).
Samuel Goldwyn had initially thought about giving Kaye a major makeover before his feature debut. In his biography Goldwyn, A. Scott Berg quotes the producer's wife Frances, who recalled, "In that first screen test Danny's face was all angles and his nose so long and thin it almost was like Pinocchio's. More tests were made. Then more. In each a new makeup was tried and different lightings. And none were good." The unspoken worry was that Kaye's look was too "ethnic" (i.e. Jewish) and the mogul feared this would not play well in Middle America. After months of pondering the problem, Goldwyn hit upon what he thought would be a solution; he had Kaye's red hair dyed blond for the next round of tests.
Sylvia Fine continued to write material for her husband as he began his feature film career, and she also sought to retain the established tone of his work. She later told Berg, "Everybody, Sam Goldwyn included, thought a comedian who wasn't cruel or bombastic had to play a nebbish. But that's not who Danny was. He played the eager beaver. That's quite different. He'd trip himself up in enthusiasm." Kaye's first musical number in Up in Arms is a perfect introduction to his "git-gat-gittle" style. Written by Fine and Max Liebman, "The Lobby Number" occurs as our double-dating couples wait impatiently for a film to start, and includes clever swipes at the indulgence of opening credits in movies: "Produced by Manic and directed by Depressive!" Another Fine-Liebman number, "Melody in 4-F," was originally written for Kaye's appearance in the 1941 Cole Porter Broadway revue Let's Face It, and was included after receiving special permission from Porter.
Careful consideration was also given to the casting of Kaye's leading lady in Up in Arms. Goldwyn had recently signed a young actress named Virginia Jones, who he had seen performing as a straight woman to a costumed horse act in a Billy Rose revue called "Mrs. Astor's Pet Horse." She had taken the screen name Virginia Mayo and had submitted to months of Goldwyn-financed lessons in speech, poise, dancing and acting. She was also already acquainted with Danny Kaye from their days in vaudeville. As she told Michael Freedland in The Secret Life of Danny Kaye, "I told Danny I was leaving to go to Hollywood. He said that he was too. I said I was going to work for Sam Goldwyn. He said that was who he was going to work for. Then we both mentioned Up in Arms. It was quite a coincidence." Mayo had to settle for a small part in the film as one of the Goldwyn Girls, because she "froze" in her early screen tests.
Wanting to bring something new to the dance numbers in the film, Goldwyn first attempted to lure Agnes de Mille, fresh from the Broadway success of Oklahoma! to stage the choreography. Failing to persuade her, Goldwyn hired Danny Dare, who had created the dance moves for such Paramount films as Star Spangled Rhythm and Holiday Inn (both 1942).
Up in Arms was unabashedly patriotic and proved to be ideal material for distribution to the troops. Goldwyn affixed a card in the closing credits, in fact, proclaiming that "The picture you have just seen is being shown free in combat areas with the compliments of the American Motion Picture Industry." Goldwyn later found another opportunity to use the goodwill engendered by the film to his advantage. Along with other independent producers in Hollywood, Goldwyn had been embroiled for several years in a dispute with the major studios, which he felt were illegally keeping his films from earning revenues at a proper rental rate in most large city theaters. The major studios owned the majority of the large theaters in bigger cities, and The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers sought to publicize a long-pending antitrust complaint against the majors and their vertical monopoly of movie production, distribution and exhibition. Goldwyn decided to stake a claim in Reno, Nevada, and hold a screening of Up in Arms in the El Patio Ballroom, in defiance of the large studio-owned theater in town. He announced that the opening night proceeds would be donated to the local Red Cross. After haggling with the local fire Marshall, the show went on. Mary Pickford, one of the founders of the independent United Artists, was in attendance, and helped the cause by publicly railing against the big studio monopoly: "To produce Up in Arms Mr. Goldwyn spent a whole year of intensive work and $2,000,000 of his own money. This is a lot of time and a great deal of money. But to what avail? Only to be told upon completion that he shall not be permitted to show his picture except as dictated by a monopoly."
Up in Arms proved to be both a critical and a box-office hit, earning $3.3 million, and made Danny Kaye an international star. He went on to make four more hits in a row for Goldwyn, all of them costarring Virginia Mayo.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Associate Producer: Don Hartman
Director: Elliott Nugent
Screenplay: Don Hartman, Allen Boretz, Robert Pirosh
Story: Owen Davis (play The Nervous Wreck)
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Film Editing: Daniel Mandell, James Newcom
Songs: Sylvia Fine, Max Liebman
Art Direction: Stewart Chaney, Perry Ferguson
Costume Design: Miles White
Makeup: Robert Stephanoff
Cast: Danny Kaye (Danny Weems), Dinah Shore (Nurse Lt. Virginia Merrill), Dana Andrews (Joe Nelson), Constance Dowling (Mary Morgan), Louis Calhern (Col. Ashley), George Mathews (Private Blackie Snodgrass), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Info Jones), Lyle Talbot (Sgt. Gelsey), Margaret Dumont (Mrs. Willoughby).
by John M. Miller