Funnyman Danny Kaye was a gifted, charismatic, and funny actor. He was well known for his ability to tongue-twist patter songs, which became his signature, at lightening speed without batting an eye (or taking a breath, it would seem). The way his mouth twisted this way and that as if it were made of rubber added to the comedy that came to him so naturally. Kaye was the master of patter.
One of his more well-known patter songs is ‘Tchaikovsky’ from the stage production of ‘Lady in the Dark’ in which he spat out the names of 54 “Russian” composers in a matter of 38 seconds.
Kaye signed with Samuel Goldwyn in 1943 and went on to appear in 17 films, with ‘Up in Arms’ being his feature film debut that showed off his extraordinary talent for fast talk. Sylvia Fine was also signed at this time to write special material for her husband.
What Is a Patter Song?
YourDictionary.com defines a patter song as “a musical-comedy song with a simple tune and comic lyrics sung with great rapidity.”
According to the New York Times, Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine once said, “I wrote many songs for Danny that had patter sections in them, but only two pure patter songs.” Those songs being ‘Melody in 4-F’ and a variation of ‘The Nightmare Song’ from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Iolanthe.’
Top 3 Danny Kaye Movies Featuring Patter Songs by Sylvia Fine:
‘Up in Arms‘ (1944): Danny Kaye stars as Danny Weems, a hypochondriac elevator worker who pesters his docs for medication and goes around diagnosing patents with incurable ailments.
One night he goes out on a double date with two nurses – Lt. Mary Morgan (Constance Dowling) and Lt. Virginia Merrill (Dinah Shore) – and his roommate Joe (Dana Andrews). Danny has eyes for Mary, Virginia has eyes for Danny, and Mary and Joe have eyes for each other.
In this movie, Kaye performs two patter numbers written by his wife, Sylvia Fine, and Max Liebman titled ‘Theater Lobby Number’ and ‘Melody in 4-F.’ The ‘Lobby Number’ lasts a little over five minutes and Kaye doesn’t appear to ever take a breath.
‘Theater Lobby Number’ starts out simple enough but gets very complex as the tempo is gradually increased and Kaye begins rattling off words in rapid secession – and with proper enunciation.
Don’t try to keep up when he launches into ‘Melody in 4-F.’ Just sit back and enjoy. Kaye runs circles around the song and made it all his own.
In a 1944 movie review, New York Times reporter Bosley Crowther said of Kaye’s performance of ‘Melody in 4-F’, “Mr. Kaye bangs his way through this story with a maximum of vitality. He blusters, gawks, perspires, grimaces and throws himself into fits.”
‘The Inspector General‘ (1949): In this movie, Kaye portrays a village buffoon impersonating the inspector general sent by Napoleon to uncover corruption in eighteenth century Hungary (or is it Poland?). Kaye sings ‘Inspector General,’ another great patter song by Sylvia Fine.
The patter song, ‘Inspector General’, begins slowly but the tempo starts to increase with the lines:
“But an exceptionally generous inspector general who made an exception and had no inspection would cause suspicion which in my condition I couldn’t accept. Thank you. However … If people are suspecting now accept without detecting an imposter who’s not posted as a pedigreed inspector …”
‘The Court Jester‘ (1955): This movie is considered to be Danny Kaye’s best movie and is famous for the, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!” exchange between Danny Kaye’s character Hubert Hawkins and Griselda (Mildred Natwick).
In ‘The Court Jester’, Danny Kaye unleashes a patter song written by Sylvia Fine, ‘The Maladjusted Jester,’ in which he proclaims:
“My father he shouted, ‘he needs to be clouted, his teeth on a wreath I’ll hand him!’ My mother she cried as she rushed to my side, ‘You’re a brute and you don’t understand him!’ So they sent for a witch with a terrible twitch to ask how my future impressed her. She took one look at me … and cried, ‘He, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, he, HE? What else could he be but a jester,'” and he goes on.
Danny Kaye died in 1987 of a heart attack. His memory is kept alive today with the showings of his movies on classic movie networks such as AMC and TCM. If only they would air them more often.
Danny Kaye Fan
Danny Kaye, Turner Classic Movies
Movie Review – Up in Arms – ‘Up in Arms,’ With Danny Kaye, at the Music Hall — Elsewhere, ‘San Luis Rey’ — ‘Jack London’ – NYTimes.com
Sylvia Fine Kaye, 78, Songwriter; A Proponent of Musical Theater – New York Times
patter song – Definition of patter song at YourDictionary.com