On the Double (DVD Review)7 Mar, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Stars Danny Kaye, Dana Wynter, Wilfred Hyde-White.
There’s something kind of end-of-the-road-ish about this last “pure” Danny Kaye vehicle, given that before too long after its release, you didn’t see too many comical Nazis (at least in World War II settings) on screen.
Mel Brooks’ The Producers deals with a play about Nazis (thereby distancing the material), and other subsequent examples prove the point. By the time that CBS got around to sitcom subject matter during the James Aubrey era of the early/mid-1960s (think “Hogan’s Heroes”), you could be sure that it was past its time and aimed at the R.F.D. viewing demographic. And Jerry Lewis’s nearly indescribable Which Way to the Front? (about a band of 4-F’s infiltrating Nazi headquarters) was so out of its time by 1970 that Jean-Luc Godard later “dared” (his word) Telluride audiences to sit through it at one of the film festival’s showings a decade later.
Which is to say that even at its occasional best, Double is very old school — having come out almost exactly 10 years after Kaye’s previous “On the” comedy (1951’s On the Riviera) in which the comedian played dual roles as well. As the Jack Rose-Melville Shavelson screenplay contrives it in this unofficial companion piece, Kaye is an American pfc. with a gift for mimicry — somehow separated from his unit and stranded in England. The British high command notes his resemblance to one of their colonels, a married ladies’ man apparently targeted for assassination by Germans as D-Day approaches. So with Kaye facing court martial for having previously impersonated an officer and stolen a jeep, he agrees to impersonate the colonel, who sports an eye-patch. Unfortunately, the eye not covered is his bad one (by this time, one must assume the draft was taking everyone).
Kaye was 47 when he made this movie, which was probably pushing it — though Bob Hope (who was a decade older than Kaye in the first place) eventually pushed it a lot further with the much staler likes of Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! and Cancel My Reservation in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This 92-minute farce is more than a scrape job — and in fact has some endearing moments for Kaye fans once it gets going. For one thing, the British colonel has a gorgeous cheated-upon wife who isn’t supposed to show up (but does), and the regal beauty of Dana Wynter is a good foil for Kaye. Wynter was such a stunner that even the pod version of her (from the original version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers) wouldn’t have made that bad a trophy dinner date. And here, she loosens up to such an extent (or at least tries) that in one scene she even engages in a public food fight. Double’s other compensating visual is its sleek Panavision look — which, more often than not rates a good transfer here from Olive Films. If memory serves, even cable movie stations failed to letterbox Double during long-ago showings — most of the time, if not always.
Most of the humor here stems from the curveballs the situation keeps throwing at the faux colonel. Not only does wife Wynter show up but also so does one of his mistresses — a buxom staff driver played by “Miss” Diana Dors (a vanity credit for Britain’s onetime answer to Marilyn Monroe that threw me my own curveball as well when it appeared on the screen). And, naturally, Kaye’s bad eye keeps causing him problems. The movie’s highpoint is a raucous party at which the colonel’s crusty aunt shows up — played by Margaret Rutherford, no less, from the same year in which she made her first of five Miss Marple mysteries (about the closest things to reliable profit-makers that MGM had in those days outside of Elvis pictures). Rutherford and Kaye bandy about in this sequence, which also includes the food fight and a funny Highland Fling bit that’s about as prototypical-to-Kaye as anything that happens in the movie. (Oh, wait: in the late going — not long after his character is captured by Nazis and even runs into Hitler — Kaye has a drag sequence. That’s pretty prototypical, too.)
Though the star later enjoyed a popular TV series, a middling stage success (Two by Two) and a well-received dramatic appearance in TV movie Skokie, these twilight hi-jinks were just about it for Kaye’s screen big-screen career. The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963) would follow, but its black and white looked cheap, and everyone complained that director Frank Tashlin was directing Kaye in the manner of his Jerry Lewis movies, which didn’t work. Kaye’s only other picture (for he got its best reviews) was the disastrous 1969 screen version of the Jean Giroudaux play The Madwoman of Chaillot. Despite a cast that also included Katharine Hepburn, Yul Brynner, Charles Boyer, Edith Evans, Richard Chamberlain, Margaret Leighton, Paul Henried and Giulietta Masina, it was so awful (and such a tough sell under any circumstances) that Warner was barely able to mount a release.