The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars
Inka, dinka, dinka, dinka, a dinka do, I love you-u-u-u.
Stop da music! Stop da music!
Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.
If you don’t recognize those phrases, you may not have seen the inimitable Jimmy Durante (1893-1980) during his long career. But he is one of those superstars of the past whose appeal still shines through on DVDs of his movies and YouTube videos of his live appearances.
Here’s a guy who was about as far from handsome as you could imagine. His trademark was his enormous schnozzola, bracketed by two tiny sparkling eyes. His manner was rough, and his accent reeked of the Bronx. His singing voice – well, let’s just say it is charitable to even call it a singing voice. But he had a million-watt smile and a perpetual optimism as infectious as his smile.
Durante played the piano (or pounded on the pianna some would say) and sang in a raspy voice, songs straight from an early career in ragtime jazz and Vaudeville, like his theme song, Inka Dinka Do. And he signed off every show and TV program with “Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are,” creating an air of mystery as people tried to find out who this secret love was. Theories still float around, but it seems most likely it was his first wife, who died in 1947.
From his early musical success, he moved to Broadway and then became a favorite in movies, starting in a silent film and blossoming during the great era of musicals in the 1930s and 40s. Always adapting to the times, he performed on radio in its early days and moved to TV in the 1950s. His exit, walking through a series of spotlights is a classic. (You can see it in the clip below.)
To remind myself of Durante’s power as an entertainer, I rented It Happened in Brooklyn from Netflix. With co-stars Peter Lawford, Katherine Grayson and the young, swoon-producing Frank Sinatra, the film had to be a hit. Sinatra insisted that Jule Styne and Sammy Cohen write all the songs for his movies, and they really produced for this movie.
Durante plays the common man — a school janitor — who possesses wisdom beyond that of the beautiful people involved in a love triangle. While the movie would never make it in today’s Hollywood with its mishmash of Bebop, crooning and operatic arias (!), the bits with Durante still carry his magic — alternately heart warming and funny.
He delivers his lines with a punch by shaking his head back and forth, and his accent and Malapropisms crack me up. When the stuffy Englishman played by Lawford offers him a hat, Durante calls it a “chateau.” When he trys to explain something, he appends, “In other woids … there ain’t no other woids.” And when he shakes his head, he raises his hands and moans, “It’s a catastrastroke!”
Sinatra is no slouch in this movie — showing that he was meant to be a movie star from the beginning of his career. He and Durante perform a duet of a Russian song with great aplomb, mixing in made-up words that sound Slavic. Frankie even sings an operatic duet from Don Giovanni with Grayson. But Durante nearly steals the show just being Durante. As he would say, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”
Durante was in more than 40 full-length feature films between 1930 and 1970, the most notable perhaps The Man Who Came to Dinner, Little Miss Broadway, It Happened in Brooklyn, You’re In the Army Now, and Billie Rose’s Jumbo. The latter reprises his first Broadway role, where he brought down the house with a line as he led an elephant across the stage. A policeman asks where he is going with that elephant. He says, “Elephant, what elephant?” Not funny? You gotta hear it from da Schnozz!
Goodnight, Jimmy Durante, wherever you are.