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Paramount Home Video presents
The Five Pennies (1959)

Tony: Welcome to paradise.
Red: That's all right. Pretty soon, you'll all be working for me.

- Harry Guardino, Danny Kaye

Review By: Jeff Wilson   
Published: December 13, 2005

Stars: Danny Kaye, Barbara Bel Geddes, Louis Armstrong, Susan Gordon
Other Stars: Harry Guardino, Bob Crosby, Bobby Troup, Tuesday Weld, Shelly Manne, Ray Anthony
Director: Melville Shavelson

MPAA Rating: G for nothing objectionable
Run Time: 01h:57m:16s
Release Date: December 13, 2005
UPC: 097360582345
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B-B+B+ D-

DVD Review

Biopics are often a been there, done that proposition for moviegoers; unless you're a fan of the person being lionized, there isn't a great deal of difference in many of these films. The plot usually goes like this: the hero is introduced and we learn about his or her goal. There are people or other elements in the way, and the hero must overcome them. He gains success; he runs into a problem of some kind, which again, must be overcome, before a final triumph is reached. If you've seen Walk the Line, the recent Johnny Cash biopic, it pretty much follows that scheme. So it is with The Five Pennies, which is, as I gather, a very loose telling of the Loring "Red" Nichols story. Nichols was a famous jazz man of the 1920s, largely forgotten today, except by afficionadoes of the period. If his story isn't particularly unique, what makes it worth viewing?

As the film opens, Red (Danny Kaye) has just arrived in New York from Utah to take a position in a hotel band. The band plays tame, watered-down stuff, which immediately rubs the cocky Red the wrong way. A trip up to Harlem brings two important people into his life: his showgirl date Bobbie (Barbara Bel Geddes), soon to become his wife, and Louis Armstrong (played by Satchmo himself), who becomes Red's buddy after an impromptu jam session. Red gets himself fired from his band gig, and bounces from one demeaning job to another on radio, sabotaging each one along the way when it doesn't meet his musical standards. He finally hits the big time playing his music, only to see his daughter Dorothy (Susan Gordon) contract polio, something he blames himself for. Quitting the biz to care for his family, Red settles down and works in a shipyard with the arrival of World War II, but his devoted wife and former manager want the retired, nearly forgotten jazz man to take up the horn again, resulting in an ending that will either elicit tears or groans of pain at the sentimentality of it all.

As Red, Kaye is ebullient and rambunctious, something the actual Red was, from what I have read, definitely not. Still, Kaye is always fun to watch, and he fills the role well, though it's hard to judge how old the character is supposed to be, since he plays him both as callow youth and hardened pro, looking certainly way too old for the former. Bel Geddes, while not my idea of a sexy showgirl, has a warm, comforting quality to her performance. Tuesday Weld makes her screen debut as the teenaged Dorothy, and several real life jazz men play some of the legends of jazz that got early starts in Nichols' group.

There isn't any real lesson to be learned here, unless it's to act like a jerk when you don't get your way, and eventually things will work out. Nichols' behavior during his slog to success hardly finds him endearing, but we're supposed to consider him a misunderstood artist, rather than an unreliable showoff ruining other people's shows. The plot is smoothed over to the point of being silly. When Red quits his tour to care for Dorothy, we're told it will ruin him, because of the financial obligations and his freespending ways. But in the next scene, Bobbie shows Dorothy a picture of the house they've just bought. The film doesn't always carry across the time period very well, either; for a film set in part during the Depression, I didn't see much evidence of it. In all though, these are relatively small quibbles; if you're inclined to like the film, and I did like it up to the saccharine overload ending, then it's enough. The performances of Kaye and company, and the excellent musical performances (including several songs written by Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine) carry over an otherwise routine story.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Presented in its Vista Vision aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1, the film looks quite nice, with some potentially problematic sequences featuring saturated background colors coming through well. There is at least one sequence with some annoying picture judder, but otherwise this is a good quality transfer.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Two choices on offer here, Dolby Mono and a 5.1 track. I watched the film with the 5.1 track on, and it sounded fine, with some moderate separation during some of the musical numbers.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: None, not even a trailer.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

An enjoyable if formulaic bio of jazz musician "Red" Nichols, the film is a must for fans of Danny Kaye or Louis Armstrong. The DVD is largely bare, but does a solid job of presenting the film.


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