Saturday, 19 September 2009

"Ze alcohol! You are spilling ze alcohol!" The forgotten genius of Danny Kaye in The Man From the Diners' Club (1963)

Greetings. As well as old comics, I love old films. Especially comedy films. The incredible rubber-faced multi-voiced high-speed comedy genius Danny Kaye has always held a particular place in my affections. When I was a kid, I remember watching his 1955 comedy The Court Jester with my Paw and laughing so much at it that I thought I my sides would split - really, I'm not just saying that. Twenty years later, it finally came out on DVD and I got the chance to see it again. I was rather worried - supposing that it wasn't that funny after all? I sat down to watch it with my flat mate (who also hadn't seen the film for 20 years) and luckily it was just as funny as ever - perhaps more so. Or perhaps I'm just even dumber than I was as a kid. But seriously: it may, in fact, be the funniest film ever made. Yes, folks. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, get yourself a copy right now.

But that's not the film I'm writing about today. No, today let's rap about The Man From the Diners' Club. This is a lesser-known Kaye comedy, directed by Frank Tashlin, a one-time director of Warner Bros. cartoons who moved into live action work, notably directing some films by comedy genius clown / unfunny conceited club comic (depending on your opinion ) Jerry Lewis in the 1960s. More about Lewis another time, maybe.

The Man From the Diners' Club is not available on DVD. I find this astonishing. It is an unduly ignored comedy film about nervous, twitchy credit card company employee Ernest Klenk, who accidentally issues a card to a gym-running mobster (splendidly played by Telly Savalas), then spends much of the film trying to get the card back from the gangster before his boss notices he's issued it. For ridiculous reasons, he has to get a job as a gym instructor in the gangster's gym to do this. Meanwhile, the gangster has decided that he will murder Klenk because he has the same size feet as himself and steal his identity (along with his credit card) and split to Mexico. The plot's pretty muddled up at some points and a bit over-complicated but it doesn't matter that much - the main thing is that you get to see some great energetic twitchy gulpy Danny Kaye routines. Savalas is great, and there are some very sexy 1960s gals on hand to take a peek at too, which all adds to the fun.

Danny Kaye as nervous employee Ernest Klenk. He's probably just about to start twitching, rolling his eyes, and gulping. I wouldn't be at all surprised.

These are the best bits:

1. Ernest/Danny attempting to get a card out of a giant computer, which is in fact an enormous card index. Of course, his tie gets stuck in the mechanism, and all the cards fly out, with sound effects of springs twanging. Cue Danny twitching, pulling faces, and cards flying everywhere, as he frantically tries to collect them up, while they blow about like they were in a gale. The scene just goes on and on. He falls over, etc.

2. An amazing beatnik party scene, with a groovy young Harry Dean Stanton spouting brilliantly well-observed Ginsbergesque hokum about "The Cosmic Laundry" to the bongo accompaniment of his polo-necked pals. Cue Danny twitching, pulling faces, etc. Fantastic.

3. Ernest/Danny, pretending to be a gym instructor, attempting to give one of his office colleagues a massage, without him catching on who he is. Cue Danny pulling his jersey over his face, and pretending to be a brutal Bavarian masseur, twisting the poor guy's neck, hammering his back, and pouring massage oil in his face every few seconds whilst shouting "Ze alcohol! You are spilling ze alcohol!" and such like, in a cod-German accent, over and over. The scene just goes on and on. It looks genuinely violent. Then, having run out of script and ad-libs, he throws talcum powder all over the place. Brilliant stuff.

FOH Stills from the film (which was in fact in good old fashioned Black and White). Note bottom right - Ernest gets his tie stuck in the giant computer card index... guess what happens next...

The tie-in paperback adaptation of the film. If you look closely you can see the cards all flying about while Ernest tries to gather them up. Also note Danny's doll-like screen girlfriend, whom you can't possibly believe would go for drippy old-man Klenk. Nice cover, but the problem with the novelisation is that it can never replicate the experience of hearing Danny shout "Ze alcohol! Ze alcohol!" over and over until you think he can't possibly do the line again, and then he does.

I must stress that Danny isn't given much to do here in terms of his trademark witty, clever quick-fire verbal humour, and there's no singing at all; I guess many Kaye fans would be disappointed for that reason. It seems more like a Jerry Lewis vehicle, crossed with a Jacques Tati film, crossed with a Bugs Bunny cartoon. All of which suits me fine. But if you don't like your comedy broad, loud, childish, overdone and with humorous German accents, you probably won't like The Man From the Diners' Club.

Indeed, difficult though it is to contemplate that there are such philistines out there reading this, I must point out that if the thought of watching 90 minutes of Danny Kaye relentlessly mugging, dashing about, rolling his eyes, stuttering, twitching nervously and shouting "ze alcohol!" doesn't fill you with a sense of buoyant joviality and an air of expectant glee, you may conceivably find this film a laughter-free zone. You humorless old buzzard.

But you will find a bootleg copy in THE HOUSE OF COBWEBS.