(SPOILERS) For my money, the best Danny Kaye movie, although most of the plaudits tend to go – also quite reasonably – to The Court Jester or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Kaye makes the most of Wonder Man’s dual roles, showing off both his theatrical and introvert modes, and the screenplay’s a veritable wind-up motor for gags based on disbelief in supernatural goings on. Double takes at the ready!
Buzzy: He’s a bookworm… I’m just a worm.
The plot – with a story from Arthur Sheekman (Duck Soup), the screenplay is credited to five writers including Don Harman (a slew of Bob Hopes including three Roads), Meville Shavelson (more Hopes), Philip Rapp (subsequently Walter Mitty and The Inspector General), Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran (Topper) – is deft and confident in a manner that belies all those cooks stirring its pot.
The doubles/twins-with-opposing-personalities premise gets a twist with one of them dying during the opening sequence, on account of his being witness to mob boss Ten Grand Jackson (Steve Cochran) murderising a dame. Now-ghostly stage performer and star Buzzy Bellew (Kaye) promptly calls upon retiring bookworm brother Edwin Dingle (Kaye), requesting he take his place and give the necessary testimony. They haven’t seen each other in years, don’t you know, and no one ever seems to mistake Edwin for (famous) Buzzy. All the same, this is a rock-solid premise for high-jinks and mistaken conclusions – Buzzy was engaged to Midge (Vera-Ellen), while Edwin is tentatively wooing librarian Ellen (Virginia Mayo) – and Kaye schticking to the max.
Like any such vehicle, then, your mileage will vary based on how winning you find Kaye as a performer. I grew up watching him, so I’m an easy sell (which is not to say some of his movies don’t leave me cold, based on how comedically anarchic they aren’t). Wonder Man’s possession formula would find comedic use again about four decades later, so imagine Ghost with Kaye playing both Swizzle and Whoopi, or All of Me. Wonder Man also charts the worm turning, à la Innerspace’s mild-mannered fellow boosted by a much more confident internal instigator.
As might be expected, the early stages of Edwin’s haunting and subsequent appropriation (whereby Buster will “step inside you and use your body”) are a particular boon for comedic moments. Edwin, round at Ellen’s for dinner, embarks on an errand to avail of himself of potato salad from Schmidt’s delicatessen. Schmidt (SZ Sakall of Casablanca), is his era’s Soup Nazi, laying down edicts of “No baloney!” to a terrified customer questioning his use of a razor to slice the meats.
Edwin: I don’t want to go to Brooklyn.
Bus Driver: None of us want to bud, but we’ve all got to go sooner or later.
He’s merely the first to become unhinged by Edwin’s lunatic babbling, as the latter makes his order: “I’d like a pint of… Prospect Park”. This is followed by a series of half-deranged explanations that only make things worse (“I’ve got to get to the Buzzy park”). Sakall is an inspired straight man for all this, and more gems will follow with other unsuspecting victims: “Pardon me, is this the bus to Potato Salad?” Edwin asks the driver, who gives him the truth as he knows it regarding the grim inevitability of Brooklyn. An altercation with a policeman, whom Edwin kicks up the ass and then spooks, ensues, before further disturbing Schmidt (“I’d like a pint of pelican”).
Edwin: Palpably inadequate.
Edwin is required to go on stage (as Buzzy), and his various scrapes inevitably lead to a boost in his confidence. This includes getting pished, resulting in Buzzy leaving his body and ordering drinks from the bar. Many of the vocal and physical displays are undoubtedly on the indulgent side – the Russian baritone; his sneezing fits; he also does an Oirish, which puts one curiously in mind of Jon Pertwee as Worzel Gummidge – and some outstay their welcome, but none of them are dull. And if they aren’t as funny as some of the full-on possession scenes, the climax, as Edwin, bereft of Buzzy –- “I’ve run out of ectoplasm” his brother informs him, giving Dan Aykroyd ideas – crashes the opera, is really quite inspired as these things go. He dons tights to give the District Attorney vital information he earlier flunked, singing the details/calls for help (“Sinatra!”). Most of the song material was written by Kaye’s wife Sylvia Fine.
Elsewhere, there’s some nicely choreographed business involving Edwin attempting to explain himself to Ellen by following her around on a library ladder, and also her attempting to ward off a couple of goons by pretending Edwin’s tapping on the window is the radiator pipes. Notably, Ten Grand hardly makes his presence felt, and it’s Chimp (Allen Jenkins) and Torso (Edward Brophy) who provide the lion’s share of the antagonism.
The raft of writers display a nice line in self-awareness (“What is this, trick photography?” asks Edwin of this brother’s first appearance, via trick photography), and Chimp and Torso reach near enough the correct conclusion as soon as they first see Edwin posing as Buzzy (“There’s only one explanation. That guy’s Buzzy’s ghost”). “First thing you know, men in uniforms will come along and take you away” Ellen reproaches Edwin, just as a police car pulls up and two men in uniforms do exactly that.
Virginia Mayo was making a winning foil for comedy stars around this time, and she holds her own as Kaye’s love interest (she can be seen in the likes of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Up in Arms (uncredited), The Kid from Brooklyn and opposite Bob Hope in The Princes and the Pirate). Vera Ellen is less so (she also starred with Kaye in The Kid from Brooklyn, and a decade later in White Christmas; On the Town is another of her credits), such that you’re relieved when she – rather shallowly – decides to marry Monte (Donald Woods) instead. Also present is Otto Kruger as the DA (he was dastardly Charles Tobin in Saboteur).
Ellen: He’s been writing a book called the Outcome of Human Knowledge.
Credit too to whichever writer boned up on Edwin’s intellect. Ambidextrous, he invokes the Thales of Miletus Paradigm as Buster takes hold: “The control of spiritual magnetic forces over the physical – Thales was right”. “Thales’ power of magnetic compulsion” references his philosophical bent, whereby Aristotle suggested “Thales thought all things are full of gods”, or souls, and that, since magnets move iron, the presence of movement meant such matter contained life.
As is common to such comedies, it’s revealed that the way the world works is beyond the accepted realm of science, and science itself invites superstition. Edwin explains to a woman keen to have him talk to a ladies’ group that he has a “Morbid fear of crowds, especially of women”; “Oh, I wouldn’t want my friends exposed to it” she replies, thinking better of the invitation, and doubtless poised to don a protective mask at any moment.
Buzzy: I’m a little devil, ain’t I?
Wonder Man was a success, although it’s unclear how substantial a one (It’s absent from the Top 10 of its year, but it surely wasn’t far off. Well, I say that. The Court Jester is generally feted as a classic, but bombed on release). It received four Oscar nominations, winning Best Special Effects. Deservedly so, as they’re still hold up. Or rather, they’re far from palpably inadequate.