Likely your family has seen Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID. You may have read aloud to your child THE UGLY DUCKLING, THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA, or THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES. You might have heard of THUMBELINA. The man behind them all, and other classic fairy tales and bedtime stories, is the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen.
In 1952 legendary independent film producer Samuel Goldwyn, marvelous Broadway playwright Moss Hart (a Pulitzer winner, with partner George S. Kaufman) and witty Broadway songwriter Frank Loesser (“Guys And Dolls”), gave a gift to the world’s children in the form of a fictionalized movie about Andersen starring an actor who remains a kid-magnet, the irresistible-across-generations Danny Kaye. (Watch the trailer, you’ll see what I mean.)
Danny Kaye, born David Daniel Kaminsky, a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, is such a charismatic, beguiling, kid-appealing actor that my daughter, first exposed to him at age eight, can’t get enough of him. One day, after watching one of his films for the umpteemth time, she asked me earnestly and quite urgently why “they,” meaning movie studios like the one I work for, “don’t make more Danny Kaye movies.” (You can read more about his very best movie, THE COURT JESTER, elsewhere on this website.) On screen, Kaye exudes the qualities you find in a funny, warm, patient parent, dad, uncle, teacher or coach. He’s exactly the sort of adult you want around kids: he seems to know instinctively how to relate to and entertain them. Yet he does it without ever being cloyingly sweet, or talking down to them. When he’s with children on screen, you get the sense there is no place on earth he’d rather be, and nothing else he’d rather be doing. He was simply born to do this.When Moss Hart wrote the movie’s screenplay, he realized that Andersen’s actual life would make for a dull tale, so he elected instead to fictionalize it in a way that would incorporate many of Andersen’s stories. It’s a brilliant conceit that utilizes Andersen’s progression from humble shoemaker to famous children’s author as the framework. Giving Andersen’s character a boy as an apprentice, a character called Peter, was a smart choice too. In addition to Peter, Andersen interacts with younger, elementary-school-age children in many, many scenes.
Kids love to watch other kids in movies: it makes the scenes instantly accessible. And the movie’s director, old hand Charles Vidor (remembered now mostly for Rita Hayworth vehicles “Cover Girl” and “Gilda”) let the interaction between Kaye and the child actors happen in a way that feels natural and unaffected. Seemingly unaware of the camera, they are focused utterly on Kaye, their pied piper. (Though Andersen didn’t write that fairy tale, the description perfectly describes Kaye’s affect on little ones.)
Another brilliant stroke of the movie’s conception was making it a musical. It’s the songs that are perhaps the movie’s most compelling element after Kaye’s performance and Andersen’s tales. As a child, I can remember playing the soundtrack to HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN incessantly on a portable record player (ah, the cracks and pops of vinyl), dropping the needle onto my favorite cuts, “Thumbelina” and “Wonderful Copenhagen” until I knew the words by heart. The melancholy “Inchworm” always made me a little sad, but in kind of a good way I didn’t quite understand, and “No Two People” was so catchy it would stay in my head all day. Those are just of few of the memorable melodies; my daughter was so enthralled by the songs I wound up scouring the internet for a rare CD dealer and tracked down the soundtrack (though you can now get it from iTunes), which she then proceeded to play as much as I had as a child.
What I don’t enjoy as much, but which some kids, especially little girls who are taking ballet lessons, may relish, are the ballet sequences choreographed by another stellar talent in his field, Roland Petit. There’s a ballet version of the Little Mermaid that’s very different from the Disney-fied version, but it’s great to expose kids to two versions of the same basic story and then talk about the differences and similarities. The sets and costumes are elaborate and wildly colorful, and they may be enough to enthrall kids who don’t normally sit still for extended ballet sequences.
For those who find the dancing less interesting, it’s no sin to fast-forward or skip: scene selection is your friend. This movie skews younger in its appeal: the sweet spot is probably somewhere between preschool and third grade, though even kids a bit older will likely find it enjoyable. It’s a great introduction to Danny Kaye, and if it happened to be a part of your childhood the way it was mine, you’ll enjoy cozying up to your kid on the couch and reawakening the kid in you who first fell under his spell.
HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN (1952) directed by Charles Vidor, written by Moss Hart, words and music by Frank Loesser. With Danny Kaye.