The most remarkable scene in the movie: a guilty Nichols/Kaye, feeling that his daughter's polio is the direct result of his neglect of her in favor of jazz, promises God that if she survives, he will give up music and devote himself to her care. Sound hokey? Could have been. But the scene where Kaye throws his cornet into the river is absolutely spine-chilling. He stops, tenderly caressing the cornet keys, allowing the happy memories to pass wistfully over his features...then coldly, abruptly, tosses the instrument into the waters below. When Kaye straightens up, he seems to have aged twenty years and gained fifty pounds...a remarkable scene.
The second level on which the film can be appreciated: an introduction to a wonderful musician. Like "The Glenn Miller Story" and "The Benny Goodman Story," "The Five Pennies" makes little attempt to give an accurate portrayal of its subject. Ernest Loring Nichols, from all accounts, was a cool, calculating businessman, nothing like the madcap, freewheeling character played by Danny Kaye. As a cornetist he stood willingly in the shadow of his idol Bix Beiderbecke, whose playing style he strove (with some success) to duplicate. Despite the fact that Bix was the major personal and professional influence on Red, he is mentioned only once, toward the end of the film: "(in those early days) there was Louis (Armstrong), Bix and me--and that was it!"
Biographical inaccuracies aside, the pure tone of the real Nichols' cornet shines through brilliantly, and reaches out to grab the ear of the traditional jazz fan--at least it did mine. When I first saw the film in '81, I was a Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman fan, and knew Nichols only as a bandleader they had played with early on. The movie was a springboard, leading me to search out the albums, and the real biographical details, of the very real Red Nichols.
Incidentally, the film benefited the by-then largely forgotten Nichols greatly: just as the late-5O's dixieland-revival was gathering steam, he landed a Columbia contract, and recorded some wonderful stereo albums of his past hits--and of the music specially written for the film by Silvia Fine (Mrs. Danny Kaye). Though he died in '65 (while in Vegas to play a gig), his music lives on through these wonderful albums --and through the soundtrack on Decca, featuring not only Nichols but Louis Armstrong. Their duets, through placed in fictionalized scenes, stand as a legitimate audio document of two of the earliest and most influential cornetist/trumpeters in history playing together--in glorious, analog stereo. I'll join the others who've commented on this film in wishing that this wonderful soundtrack would be released on CD. (Not outside the realm of possibility: the soundtrack of "Pete Kelly's Blues, from the same time period, has just appeared on CD...so who knows?)
For both traditional jazz fans, and those who appreciate wholesomely uplifting (but NOT goody-goody) film, this movie is a treasure.