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Samuel Goldwyn struck audience gold when he starred newcomer Danny Kaye in his first feature film Up in Arms (1944), and for Kaye's second vehicle Goldwyn would put him into the kind of double identity/dual role plot which would later become almost a Kaye trademark. Wonder Man (1945) is a manic, music-filled gambol with a hip show-biz edge that provides Kaye (at least in one of the two roles here) with a flashy charm that highlighted his considerable appeal as a credible romantic as well as comic lead.
The producer tapped the capable Bruce Humberstone to direct Wonder Man; a versatile director, he enjoyed previous musical successes with Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Hello Frisco, Hello (1943). Goldwyn brought back screenwriter Don Hartman from Up in Arms, added Melville Shavelson (who had collaborated with Hartman on the Goldwyn-Bob Hope vehicle The Princess and the Pirate (1944), Philip Rapp (he created Baby Snooks for Fanny Brice), Arthur Sheekman (gag writer for the Marx Brothers), Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran, all working to fashion a storyline that could contain and showcase Danny Kaye's prodigious range of talents.
This creative team came up with the story of a murdered nightclub entertainer who comes back from the grave to haunt his bookish twin brother so that the flamboyant twin Buzzy Bellew can get his shy sibling Edwin Dingle -- to testify against the gangster who had him killed. It could have been an eerie supernatural tale, but not with Danny Kaye in the lead. With Buzzy's ectoplasm egging him on, Edwin embarks on an eccentric adventure including stops at Brooklyn's Prospect Park, a nightclub stage, an intense grilling at the District Attorney's office, and finally a grand opera production where Edwin must integrate his testimony into the libretto. Kaye began to hone his craft from the time he was a tummler in the Catskill Mountain resorts. Later, during his overseas tours before non-English speaking audiences, he learned to win over an audience through gestures using his elegant hands. It was after his smash runs at New York nightclub La Martinique in the early 1940s and the Broadway shows Lady in the Dark and Let's Face It that Hollywood came calling. And no one was better qualified to bring to life Wonder Man's complicated plot which completely relied on Kaye's versatility and charismatic personality to make it work.
Actress Virginia Mayo, who had appeared in a handful of movies up to this point, including an uncredited Goldwyn Girl cameo in Up in Arms, had acquitted herself well opposite Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate. As a result, Goldwyn saw a complementary pairing in the beautiful Mayo and the energetic Kaye and his instincts were right. The couple radiated an on-screen chemistry that led to three more films together for Goldwyn after Wonder Man.
The second female lead was a talented newcomer discovered by Samuel Goldwyn and brought to Hollywood for her screen debut in Wonder Man. Vera Ellen Westmeyer Rohe, who would use Vera-Ellen as her screen name, had been a dancer since childhood, winning a Major Bowes competition and soon becoming the youngest Rockette at Radio City Music Hall. She soon began appearing in Broadway musicals, including Panama Hattie with Ethel Merman and By Jupiter with Ray Bolger, and really broke out with her role in the revival of A Connecticut Yankee in 1943 where she sang and danced as one of the leads. Goldwyn liked what he saw, and cast the fresh-faced, energetic and wholesome twenty-three year old as the singing dancing girlfriend of Buzzy Bellew. (Though she sang on Broadway, Vera-Ellen wouldn't be allowed to use her own voice in her movie musicals and was dubbed in all her films.) She's one of the most athletic of female movie dancers, with a fierce but graceful muscularity that paired perfectly with Kaye's ebullient but non-traditional approach to dancing.
Danny Kaye's wife, composer Sylvia Fine, devised several specialty numbers for her husband for Wonder Man, including the bouncy "Bali Boogie" performed with Vera-Ellen, during which he managed to injure his ankle jumping out of a giant drum, holding up production for several weeks. Fine also devised a comic version of the Russian standard "Otchi Chorniya" plus the clever madcap opera finale that wraps up the plot. Songwriters Leo Robin and David Rose wrote a catchy tune "So in Love" for Vera-Ellen's big solo song and dance.
Most reviewers enjoyed seeing what the dynamic but sometimes exhaustingly-talented Danny Kaye could do in his second screen outing and generally conceded that Kaye's contributions to Wonder Man far exceeded the formulaic screenplay. The movie's top-notch technical achievements were also singled out for recognition. Kaye's twin brother interactions were made possible by seamless and state-of-the-art (for its time) techniques which earned John P. Fulton (photographic) and Arthur Johns (sound) the Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Effects at the 1945 Awards. (Wonder Man's script contained an amusing in-joke when the ghostly Buzzy slips his torso onto a park statue, and asks Edwin "What is this, trick photography?"). The film also received nominations for "So in Love" as Best Music, Original Song, for Louis Forbes and Ray Heindorf for Best Music, Scoring of a Motion Picture, and for Gordon Sawyer for Best Sound, Recording.
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Director: H. Bruce Humberstone
Screenplay: Arthur Sheekman, Jack Jevne, Eddie Moran, Don Hartman, Melville Shavelson, Philip Rapp
Cinematography: Victor Milner, William Snyder
Film Editing: Daniel Mandell
Art Direction: Ernst Fegte
Music: Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld
Cast: Danny Kaye (Edwin Dingle), Virginia Mayo (Ellen Shanley), Vera-Ellen (Midge Mallon), Donald Woods (Monte Rossen), S.Z. Sakall (Schmidt), Allen Jenkins (Chimp).
by Lisa Mateas