The Five Pennies
Cast & Crew
Barbara Bel Geddes
In 1924, Red Nichols, a superb cornet player despite his naiveté, travels from his small hometown in Utah to New York City to join the band of crooner Wil Paradise. Red irritates the smug Paradise by offering to play in the new, jazzier New Orleans style, and when Paradise angrily rebukes him, Red asserts that before long, all of his fellow musicians will be working for him. Later, musician Tony Valani asks Red to join him on a double date with two chorus girls, Bobbie Meredith and Tommye Eden, but Red insists that they go to Harlem to hear Louis Armstrong, a black trumpet player from the South. Tony acquiesces to Red's demand and the quartet goes to the club, although Bobbie assumes that Red is a boring hick because he is from Utah. At the club, which is actually a speakeasy, Red is awed by Louis' talent while Bobbie, who correctly surmises that Red has never before imbibed, gets him drunk as a joke. Bobbie regrets her actions, however, when Red, inspired by Louis, takes the stage to play with him and makes a fool of himself. After the embarrassed Red sobers up, he reveals to Bobbie that his real name is Ernest Loring Nichols, and, contrite, she confesses that her name is Willa Stutsman and that she also is from a close family. When Bobbie still does not believe that Red can really play, however, he accompanies Louis from the back of the club, and Louis and the audience are thrilled by Red's skill. Red gets Bobbie a job as a singer with Paradise's band, and the couple soon marries. On the evening of their wedding, Red is so irritated by Paradise's hypocrisy that he quits and also costs Bobbie her job. Bobbie cannot maintain her fury at Red, however, after he confesses that he pawned his treasured cornet to pay for their bridal suite. Resigning herself that she will never know what her impulsive yet talented husband will do, Bobbie follows Red as he takes numerous radio jobs, which he invariably loses due to his clowning. One day, Bobbie goes to their neighborhood deli and there joins a group of musicians, including Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Artie Schutt and Dave Tough. When they joke about Red's impractical dreams, Bobbie berates them for not even reading his latest arrangements, and upon realizing that Bobbie is pregnant, the chastened musicians reconsider Red's arrangements. Impressed, they join Red and soon, as Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, they are producing one hit record after another by playing Red's Dixieland-style jazz. Bobbie accompanies Red and the band on their nonstop tours, but after she has the baby, a girl they name Dorothy, Red decides to settle down. Bobbie assures Red that the baby will not interfere with his career, and soon, Dorothy joins them on the road. Five years pass as the band's fame continues to spread during their travels, and Dorothy grows accustomed to their itinerant lifestyle. One night, however, while Bobbie is away visiting her sister, Red takes Dorothy with him to listen to Louis, with whom he has become close friends. When Bobbie suddenly returns home, she is appalled to find Dorothy at the late-night jam session, and tells Red that they must settle down for their daughter's sake. Red confesses that he wants to continue touring and persuades Bobbie to put Dorothy in a San Francisco boarding school, "just for a little while." Dorothy is deeply resentful of Red's decision, especially as her parents' visits become more infrequent. Then one day, Red learns that Dorothy has fallen ill and when he rushes to join Bobbie at her side, is told that she has polio. The sullen Dorothy refuses to acknowledge Red, who, heartbroken and believing that Dorothy's illness is his fault, throws his cornet off the Golden Gate Bridge into the San Francisco Bay. Determined to do everything he can to enable his daughter to walk again, Red quits the music business, buys a small house for his family in Los Angeles and takes a job at the nearby shipyards. Red and Bobbie work hard on Dorothy's physical therapy, and by her fourteenth birthday, she is able to walk with the use of canes. At her birthday party, her friends laugh at the idea that her father was once a famous musician, which Dorothy herself can barely remember. They play some of his old records, however, and are impressed. Meanwhile, Red is at the shipyard where Glenn, now the leader of his own successful band, is performing to encourage the workers in their wartime efforts. Tiredly telling a coworker that he has heard the music before, Red leaves before the concert ends and joins Dorothy's party. Red is angered by the teenagers' condescending attitude toward his musical career, but when he tries to demonstrate that he really can play, only a few sour notes issue from an old cornet that Tony had sent to Bobbie in case Red ever wanted it. Declaring that he has lost his ability to play, Red spurns Tony's offer to help him get a club date when Bobbie arranges for them to meet. Dorothy, realizing that her father gave up music for her, urges Red not to be a quitter, just as he used to encourage her to regain her strength. Still unsure of himself, Red is reluctant, but with his wife and daughter behind him, he begins to practice. Two months later, Tony gets Red a "gig" in a small nightclub and on opening night, Red is deeply disappointed that none of his old friends have come to see him. Although only Dorothy, Bobbie and a few disinterested drinkers are in the club, Red begins the show. As he plays, he is astonished to hear Louis, Glenn and all his old bandmates parade in, playing along with him. A huge audience also pours into the club, and Red gleefully jams with Louis. After their triumphant number, Red asks Bobbie to join him on stage, and she tells him that she has a surprise for him. Dorothy then walks to the center of the dance floor without the aid of her cane and, curtsying to her father, asks him for a dance. Overwhelmed, Red sweeps his daughter up to the stage and joins his friends in another number.
Barbara Bel Geddes
William R. Remick
Evelyn C. Cotton
June Jocelyn Salven
Paul Francis Derolf
Norman Lee Harris
Frank C. Radcliffe
Thornton W. Allen
James M. Black
Nacio Herb Brown
A. D. Cook
Daniel L. Fapp
John P. Fulton
A. Harrington Gibbs
John W. Green
James F. Hanley
Harry F. Hogan
Frank P. Keller
W. Wallace Kelley
Hal C. Kern
J. S. Pierpont
Katharine E. Purvis
Giocchino Antonio Rossini
M. W. Sheafe
Bert A. Williams
Best Costume Design
The Five Pennies
Following the trend, Paramount released this musical biopic very loosely based on the life of cornet player and bandleader Ernest Loring "Red" Nichols (1905-1965), who began playing at a young age and became one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 1920s, both for his embrace of the "hot" Dixieland style and for giving a start to all of the music legends portrayed in the films listed above. With a bit of word play on his last name, the various configurations of Nichols' groups through the years were known as the Five Pennies, giving this picture its title.
Despite his early success, and a hit 1927 recording of "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider," Nichols never reached the fame of those musicians who had come through his early bands and moved on to careers of their own. He quit the business suddenly in 1942 when his daughter contracted polio, and he worked in military shipyards until the end of the war, when he formed a new band. They started playing in small clubs in the Los Angeles area, soon followed by gigs in larger and more prestigious venues. Nichols also showed up in recording sessions with singers like Peggy Lee, whose solo careers had begun to eclipse the popularity of the Big Bands that once featured them. Even as the swing style started to wane, Nichols was able to ride the crest of nostalgia for his distinctive approach.
The film traces the basic contours of his life but is on the whole fictional. Danny Kaye plays Nichols as a lovable ne'er-do-well always getting into trouble, when in fact the real-life musician was known to be very responsible and disciplined. Nichols himself supplied the cornet playing for the soundtrack, and the actor spent months learning the musician's fingering techniques. A musical comedy star, Kaye sang several of the songs, although Nichols never sang in performance. Neither did his real-life wife, Willa Stutsman, a dancer portrayed here by Barbara Bel Geddes as a singer (vocals dubbed by Eileen Wilson).
Kaye first became interested in playing Nichols in 1954 and signed an agreement to have his company co-produce with Paramount. The project proceeded in fits and starts over the next few years, sidelined first by "serious script trouble," according to a studio memo, then a strike that prevented musicians, such as Louis Armstrong (who played himself) from working on it. Pre-production eventually got going in earnest in late 1958 under the direction of Melville Shavelson, who had recently directed biopics of vaudevillian Eddie Foy (The Seven Little Foys, 1955) and New York Mayor Jimmy Walker (Beau James, 1957). Both of those starred Bob Hope, who makes a brief cameo appearance here as himself. Nichols once briefly led Hope's orchestra.
The film received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Original Song for "The Five Pennies" (written by Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine) and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. In addition to a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture-Musical, it received a Grammy nomination for Best Soundtrack Album. A Golden Globe Award for Best Promising Newcomer went to 17-year-old Tuesday Weld as Nichols' daughter Dorothy.
The film features real-life musicians Ray Anthony (as Jimmy Dorsey), Bobby Troup, Bob Crosby and Shelly Manne, and was the final screen appearance of silent star Blanche Sweet. Nichols appears briefly in the picture, uncredited, as one of the Clicquot Club Eskimos, in the sequence in which Kaye sings "Back Home Again in Indiana" on various radio shows.
The picture was a hit and brought new attention to Nichols' career. The New York Times called it "highly palatable schmaltz served up with a Dixieland beat" that was "surprisingly edifying to the eye and ear."
In 1965, Red Nichols and the Five Pennies were playing in Las Vegas when he suffered a fatal heart attack in his hotel room.
Director: Melville Shavelson
Producer: Jack Rose
Screenplay: Jack Rose, Melville Shavelson; story by Robert Smith
Cinematography: Daniel L. Fapp
Editing: Frank P. Keller
Art Direction: Tambi Larsen, Hal Pereira
Music: Leith Stevens
Cast: Danny Kaye (Red Nichols), Barbara Bel Geddes (Willa Stutsman), Louis Armstrong (Himself), Harry Guardino (Tony Valani), Bob Crosby (Wil Paradise), Bobby Troup (Artie Schutt)
By Rob Nixon
The Five Pennies
While Danny Kaye worked hard to be able to accurately fake playing cornet, it was the real Loring "Red" Nichols who provided all of the cornet playing for Danny in this movie.
The working titles of this film were Intermission, The Red Nichols Story and Red Nichols. The Hollywood Reporter erroneously listed the film's running time as 157 minutes. The Five Pennies is based on the life of noted jazz musician Ernest Loring "Red" Nichols (1905-1965), who, after being taught to play the cornet by his father, began playing professionally at a young age. Influenced strongly by the "Dixieland" style of jazz, Nichols played in various bands before beginning to record and appear on his own in the mid-1920s. With a rotating roster of bandmates, Nichols usually billed his group as "Red Nichols and His Five Pennies," and quickly became established as one of the leading players of "hot" jazz. As depicted in the film, many music legends such as Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Gene Krupa performed in Nichols' band early in their careers.
Nichols' wife, Willa Stutsman, was a dancer, not a singer as portrayed in the film. When their young daughter was afflicted by polio in 1942, Nichols quit playing and worked in the San Francisco shipyards during World War II. After the war ended, Nichols returned to music and increasing fame, and in 1956, was featured on the This Is Your Life television show. Nichols is widely considered to be one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 1920s. As noted in the onscreen credits, Nichols himself played the cornet and trumpet solos that are heard in the film. Actor Danny Kaye spent several months learning to play the cornet in order to be able to duplicate Nichols' fingering.
According to information in the Paramount Collection at the AMPAS Library, Kaye became interested in playing Nichols in late 1954, when he signed an agreement with Paramount to have his company, Dena, and Paramount co-produce the property. In November 1954, Variety noted that Nichols had "turned over 2,500 [of his] musical arrangements and scores" to Paramount's music department. The Beverly Hills Citizen review of the picture noted that Don Hartman, the head of production at Paramount from 1950 to 1956, was the first producer who became interested in developing the project. 1954 and 1955 Hollywood Reporter news items list first Paul Jones and then Pat Duggan as the producer. In July 1955, Hollywood Reporter listed Robert Parrish as the film's potential director. Los Angeles Times reported in July 1956 that Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose were taking over the project from Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, who also served as a producing-writing-directing team for Paramount.
According to studio records and contemporary news items, Daniel Fuchs, David Shaw, Edward O. Berkman, Raphael D. Blau and John Michael Hayes worked on the film's screenplay; however, the extent of their contribution to the completed film, if any, has not been determined. An August 1955 studio memo reveals that Ray June was originally set as the picture's director of photography, but due to "serious script trouble," the project was delayed. In January 1957, pre-production on the film was stopped altogether, with a studio memo stating that the picture would not be produced until 1958.
Although pre-production work on the film did begin again in early 1958, principal photography was delayed until October 1958 due to the musicians' union strike, which precluded the participation of musicians such as Louis Armstrong. A May 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Paramount offered to release Kaye from his contract to make the film with them so that he could make it for release by United Artists. As an independent studio, UA would have been more likely to sign an "interim agreement" with the musicians' union, and if so, then the film could have been made without Armstrong and the other musicians breaking the strike. A distribution deal with UA could not be reached, however, and the project was continued at Paramount.
A February 19, 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Nick Castle was set to act as the picture's choreographer, but the delay in production May have caused Castle to drop out and be replaced by Earl Barton. According to other February 1958 Hollywood Reporter news items, Polly Bergen was considered for the role of "Bobbie Meredith" and singer Bob Anthony was tested for a part. An April 1958 item in Hollywood Reporter's "Rambling Reporter" column noted that Patti Page was also under consideration for the role of Bobbie. A September 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Benny Goodman was in negotiations to play himself, but an October 1958 "Rambling Reporter" item asserted that the deal fell through because of Goodman's high salary demands. According to studio records, young actresses tested for the part of "Dorothy" as a teenager included Patty McCormack, Beverly Washburn, Sandy Descher, Karen Green and Andrea Lee.
Although Hollywood Reporter news items stated that June White and Paul Sullivan had been cast in the film, their appearance in the released picture has not been confirmed. A November 28, 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item reported that Kaye cast his daughter Dena, for whom his production company was named, as a hospital ward patient. According to the news item, the cameo was to mark her motion picture debut, but her appearance in the completed film also has not been confirmed. Nichols appears briefly in the picture as one of the "Clicquot Club Eskimos," in the sequence in which Kaye, as "Nichols," appears on a number of radio shows, singing "(Back Home Again in) Indiana" in various styles. Studio records note that second unit shooting was done on location in San Francisco and New York. Other California locations included Terminal Island, Long Beach, the Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey, Sherman Oaks and the Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood.
According to a March 1959 Hollywood Reporter news item, Kaye's ex-business manager, Edward Dukoff, sued Kaye, his wife, Sylvia Fine, and Dena Pictures, Inc., claiming that he was entitled to a percentage of the profits from any of Kaye's films developed between 1948 and 1955, including The Five Pennies, on which Dukoff allegedly worked in 1953 and 1954. The disposition of the suit has not been determined.
The film received Oscar nominations for Best Cinematography (Color), Best Costume Design (Color), Best Original Song for "The Five Pennies" and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. In addition to a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture-Musical, the picture received a Grammy nomination for Best Soundtrack Album, Original Cast-Motion Picture or Television. The Five Pennies marked the final film appearance of silent movie actress Blanche Sweet (1895-1986), who had not appeared in a picture since the 1930 RKO production The Silver Horde (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1921-30). Musician Shelly Manne again portrayed fellow drummer Dave Tough in the 1960 Columbia release The Gene Krupa Story (see below).
Released in United States 1959
Re-released in United States on Video August 6, 1996
Released in United States 1959
Re-released in United States on Video August 6, 1996