Five pennies (not 5¢?)

What an under-appreciated musical!

I’m talking about The Five Pennies, a 1959 movie starring Danny Kaye, along with Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong, Tuesday Weld, and others. If you’re unfamiliar with it—as I had been until last week—it’s basically a biopic, a slightly fictionalized biography of jazz great Red Nichols (1905–1965) and his band, The Five Pennies. (Nichols? Pennies? Five pennies? Get it?)

There’s no way that I could be called a jazz fan. Not that I dislike jazz, it has just never been part of my life. But it’s mostly only the more abstract modern jazz that mystifies me: jazz from the big band era is conventional enough that I actually like it. (I know, I know, a five-person band is not exactly a big band, but let’s not quibble. Anyway, Nichols and his five pennies make a six-person band, right?)

There’s something special about musicals where the music itself is a seamless part of the subject matter. You know, think of Fame, Cabaret, A Chorus Line, and the like, where the music just occurs naturally as part of the story—unlike the conventional musical or operetta where characters burst into song for no plausible real-life reason. So The Five Pennies feels like a naturalistic biopic, and the musical numbers by Danny Kaye and Louis Armstrong (with or without the band) are the real stars of the show. Some of it is admittedly sentimental to the point of being schmaltzy. Some of it is genuinely funny (but never silly, as Kaye can be). Some of it is serious to the point of becoming a tear-jerker, mostly the real-life scenes about the Nichols daughter developing polio. No vaccine for polio in those days. Anyhow, I enjoyed the movie, and I’m sure you will too.

Categories: Movies & (occasionally) TV