Cast & Crew
On his last night performing in Paris, American ventriloquist Jerry Morgan insults his fiancée, ballerina Audrey Wood, through his dummy Clarence, then insists that he had nothing to do with it. Fed up with Jerry's hostile, neurotic behavior, Audrey ends their engagement and leaves for London, prompting Jerry to slam Clarence onto his dressing room floor. Jerry's longtime manager, Marty Brown, witnesses the attack and announces that he is quitting unless Jerry gets psychiatric help. Though apprehensive, Jerry agrees to fly to Zurich to see Dr. Kreuger and takes the broken Clarence and his twin dummy Terence to Maurice Papinek's repair shop. At the same time, secret agent Brodnik steals the blueprints for two French-built weapons known as "Lafayette X.V.27" and eludes the police long enough to deliver them to his contact, Papinek. Papinek, who is patching up Clarence and Terence, stuffs the blueprints inside the dummies' heads and instructs Brodnik to call Lazlo Gromek in Zurich about retrieving the documents. While sneaking home, Brodnik is shot by police but, before expiring, calls Gromek and reveals that the blueprints are arriving in Zurich with a "redheaded ventriloquist." Unknown to Brodnik, the call has been overheard by agents representing master spy Godfrey Langston, an aristocratic but amoral Englishman. After the agents inform Langston about Brodnik's conversation, Langston deduces that the ventriloquist must be Jerry and arranges to fly to Zurich with him. During the flight, Jerry, who is nervous about seeing Kreuger, irritates fellow passenger Ilse Nordstrom with his oafishness, then acts baffled when Langston, who assumes that Jerry is a rival agent, calls him to his side and obliquely discusses buying the documents from him. At both the London airport and the hotel, Gromek tries to make contact with Jerry by whispering his own name, but the American assumes that "Gromek" means thank you in German and dismisses him. In the middle of the night, Jerry is half-awakened by hissing radiators and stumbles into a neighboring suite, thinking it is Marty's. Jerry falls asleep in the nearest vacant bed, only to discover the next morning that he is in Ilse's room. After Ilse throws him out, Jerry accidentally enters the women's bathroom and unknowingly showers in the stall next to Ilse's. Upon being discovered by an irate Ilse, Jerry stammers more apologies, then encounters Gromek in the hallway. When Gromek suddenly mentions Papinek, Jerry tells him about the condition of his dummies, giving Gromek an idea. Sometime later, Gromek sneaks into Jerry's room, removes the blueprint from Clarence and leaves, unaware of the second blueprint's existence. At the same time, Langston learns about Gromek and Papinek and plots to steal the blueprints from Jerry. At his office, Dr. Kreuger, meanwhile, introduces Jerry to his psychiatric colleague, who turns out to be Ilse. Ignoring his flirtations, Ilse injects Jerry with truth serum and listens as he describes how his parents' frequent fights upset him, and their vaudeville act entranced him. After Ilse concludes that Jerry's fear of marriage stems from his unhappy childhood, Kreuger declares that Jerry must go with Ilse to London to continue his treatment. Ilse and Jerry fly to London on Langston's private plane, and Jerry continues to be impressed by Langston's apparent kindnesses. Later, during his first session with Ilse, Jerry notices a photograph of an American officer on her desk and jealously begins questioning her about it. Ilse admits that the officer was her sweetheart and was killed in combat, then kicks Jerry out. The next day, however, he follows her around town and confronts her about the guilt she feels for surviving the war. Jerry's astute assumptions melt Ilse's resistance, and they end up in each other's arms. Meanwhile, Gromek and Papinek, both of whom have flown to London, meet at Gromek's hotel, where Papinek orders Gromek to retrieve the other blueprint. Gromek enters Jerry's hotel room at the same time as one of Langston's agents, and after tossing a knife into the agent, Gromek shoves the body into a closet and hides when Jerry walks in. Bubbling with love, Jerry soon heads over to Marty's room, and during his absence, Gromek tears apart the dummies. Gromek then is interrupted by the arrival of another Langston spy, who forces him at knifepoint to telephone Papinek and make arrangements to turn over the second blueprint. Moments later, Jerry returns and, upon discovering the first agent dead in the closet, runs for the police after pocketing Gromek's dropped room key. While hysterically trying to explain things to the police, Jerry opens another closet door, and Gromek's body falls out. Suspected of both crimes, Jerry flees the police, ending up in a pub, where a group of Irishmen are having a party. To blend in, Jerry pretends to be Irish and soon passes out with drink. Finding Gromek's room key in Jerry's pocket, the Irishmen take him to Gromek's hotel. The following afternoon, Jerry, unaware that Chief Inspector Wilton is with her, phones Ilse, who agrees to come to the hotel. Jerry hides his face when the hotel clerk brings him some food, but his cover is blown as soon as he opens the closet and Papinek's body tumbles out. Jerry again flees, ending up at a car dealership, where he impersonates both a customer and a salesman and steals a sports car. Ilse, meanwhile, tells Wilton that Jerry will probably go to Langston's, and Langston is notified. As predicted, Jerry races to Langston's estate, but is grabbed as soon as he arrives. Jerry breaks free and hides under a table just as Langston and Brutchik, the spy to whom Langston is selling the blueprints, sit down to discuss the transaction. Jerry eavesdrops until his presence is discovered, but manages to escape by throwing his voice and impersonating the police. In the sports car, Jerry tears back to town and takes refuge in a theater where Audrey is about to perform a ballet. To elude the police, who have been summoned by a frightened Audrey, Jerry dons a costume and joins the other dancers on stage. When Langston's men try to kill him from the wings, however, Jerry gives himself up, but implicates Langston as a murderous spy. Wilton refuses to consider his claims until Langston inadvertently reveals the weapon's secret name. Wilton arrests Langston, and later, a just married Jerry and Ilse look forward to a happy, sane honeymoon.
Philip Van Zandt
David A. Dunbar
John P. Fulton
Hal C. Kern
Best Writing, Screenplay
Best Writing, Screenplay
Knock on Wood - Danny Kaye Stars in KNOCK ON WOOD on DVD
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
Knock on Wood - Danny Kaye Stars in KNOCK ON WOOD on DVD
Leon Askin (1907-2005)
Born in Vienna, Austria as Leo Aschkenasy on September 18, 1907, Askin developed a taste for theater through his mother's love of cabaret, and as a youngster, often accompanied his mother to weekend productions.
He made a go of acting as a profession in 1925, when he took drama classes from Hans Thimig, a noted Austrian stage actor at the time. The following year, he made his Vienna stage debut in Rolf Lauckner's "Schrei aus der Strasse."
For the next six year (1927-33), he was a popular stage actor in both Vienna and Berlin before he was prevented to work on the stage by Hitler's SA for being a Jew. He left for Paris in 1935 to escape anti-semetic persecution, but returned to Vienna in 1935, to find work (albeit a much lower profile to escape scrutiny), but after a few years, the writing was on the wall, and he escaped to New York City in 1939, just at the outbreak of World War II. His luck in the Big Apple wasn't really happening, and in 1941, he relocated to Washington D.C. and briefly held the position of managing director of the Civic Theatre, a popular city venue of the day. Unfortunately, after the tragic events of Pearl Harbor in December of that year, the United States became involved in the war that had already engulfed Europe for two years, and seeing a possibility to expediate his application for American citizenship, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
After the war, Leon indeed became a U.S. citizen and changed his name from Leon Aschkenasy to Leon Askin. He returned to New York and found work as a drama teacher, and more importantly, landed his first gig on Broadway, as director and actor in Goethe's Faust in 1947, which starred Askin in the title character opposite the legendary Albert Bassermann who played Mephisto. The production was a huge success. Askin followed this up with another director/actor stint with Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice and co-starred with Jose Ferrer in Ben Hecht's 20th Century. They were all Broadway hits, and Askin had finally achieved the success he had worked so hard to seek and merit.
It wasn't long before Hollywood came calling, and soon Askin, with his rich German accent and massive physical presence, made a very effective villian in a number of Hollywood films: the Hope-Crosby comedy Road to Bali (1952); Richard Burton's first hit film The Robe; and the Danny Kaye vehicle Knock on Wood (1954).
Askin's roles throughout the 50's were pretty much in this "menacing figure" vein, so little did anyone suspect that around the corner, Billy Wilder would be offering him his most memorable screen role - that of the Russian commissar Peripetschikof who gleefully embraces Amercian Capitalism in the scintillating politcal satire, One, Two, Three (1961). Who can forget this wonderfully exchange between Peripetschikof and Coca Cola executive C.R. MacNamara (James Cagney):
Peripetschikof: I have a great idea to make money. I have a storage full of saurkraut and I'll sell it as Christmas tree tinsil!
MacNamara: You're a cinch!
His performance for Wilder was wonderfully comedic and wholly memorable, and after One, Two, Three the film roles for Askin got noticable better, especially in Lulu and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (both 1962); but he began to find prominent guest shots on hit television shows too: My Favorite Martian and The Outer Limits to name a few; yet his big break came in 1965, when for six seasons he played General Albert Burkhalter, the Nazi general who was forever taking Col. Kilink's ineptitude to task in Hogan's Heroes (1965-71).
Roles dried up for Askin after the run of Hogan's Heroes, save for the occassional guest spot on television: Diff'rent Strokes, Three's Company, Happy Days; and parts in forgettable comedies: Going Ape! (1981), Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). After years of seclusion, Askin relocated to his birthplace of Vienna in 1994, and he began taking parts in numerous stage productions almost to his death. In 2002, he received the highest national award for an Austrian citizen when he was bestowed with the Austrian Cross of Honor, First Class, for Science and Art. He is survived by his third wife of three years, Anita Wicher.
by Michael T. Toole
Leon Askin (1907-2005)
Norman Panama and Melvin Frank's onscreen credit reads: "Written, produced and directed by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank." The film opens with voice-over narration describing the French's top secret project and the two enemy agents charged with stealing its plans. According to a November 16, 1952 New York Times item, Panama, Frank and star Danny Kaye formed Dena Productions specifically to make Knock on Wood. Moira Shearer was mentioned as a possible co-star in the item, while Deborah Kerr was announced as a likely leading lady in a November 1952 Los Angeles Times item. As noted in a December 1953 This Week Magazine article, Kaye finally chose Swedish film star Mai Zetterling after he saw her in a play in London. Knock on Wood was Zetterling's first American film. According to a January 1953 Los Angeles Times item, Panama and Frank traveled to London to cast members of the Sadler's Wells Ballet company in the picture, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
Although early production news items announced that the film was to be made in Europe, it was shot entirely in Hollywood. A March 1953 Hollywood Reporter item announced that the picture would be filmed in widescreen 3-D, but it was released only in widescreen. As noted in a July 23, 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, production shut down temporarily after Pat Denise, who plays Kaye's mother in the picture, suffered "severe leg injuries" during filming. According to a July 1953 Daily Variety item, Kaye's onscreen dummies were designed using photographs of Kaye as a child. The dummies were fitted with a full set of plastic teeth, installed by dental technician Glen Cargyle, and their toupees were made by Max Factor, according to the Daily Variety item. For their work on the film, Panama and Frank were nominated for an Academy Award (Writing, Story and Screenplay) and for a WGA award.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1954 New York Times Film Critics.
Released in United States Spring April 1954
Released in United States Spring April 1954