Buzzy Bellew (Danny Kaye) is a nightclub entertainer… and a part of the criminal underworld. His life has been pretty busy, of late. He’s preparing to testify against a mobster named Ten Grand Jackson (Steve Cochran), and preparing to wed his girlfriend/fellow singer, Midge Mallon (Vera-Ellen).
Of course, with his plans to testify, he’s become an enemy of Jackson, who swiftly decides to have him murdered.
In a smaller, quieter city, Buzzy’s “superidentical” twin brother Edwin Dingle (also played by Danny Kaye) has managed to score a date with a sweet librarian, Ellen (Virginia Mayo). But the day of the date, Edwin begins hearing strange music in his head, and is compelled to do strange things, like ditching his date to take a bus to the city and go to a park.
Things start to make more sense after Edwin arrives at the park and runs into his brother. But Buzzy isn’t his normal self. Having recently been knocked off by Jackson’s thugs, he’s a ghost! His spirit can’t rest unless Edwin helps bring justice for Ten Grand Jackson, and so a wild scheme of purposefully-mistaken identity ensues.
Wonder Man was directed by Bruce Humberstone. The film was written by Don Hartman, Melville Shavelson, and Philip Rapp, based on an original story by Arthur Sheekman.
I’d say most people are probably familiar with Danny Kaye from White Christmas, over any other film. While I’ve seen a handful of his films, that’s the one I most strongly associate him with. Elsewhere, he’s never made an enormous impression on me. As such, I was interested to see him take on not just the film’s most prominent role here, but a dual role!
Kaye’s work in this film is wild and over the top, but it suits the energetic mood. The story is ridiculous and it’s brought to life in a way that can best be described as “extra.” You really kind of have to be in the perfect mood for it to enjoy it, since it’s purely kooky all the way through. But, if you are in the mood for it, it brings quite a few laughs.
His performance isn’t the only part of the film that’s over-the-top. Some of the costumes (particularly during early musical numbers) are neon-colored and fully glittered. The color palette for the film on the whole is eye-catching and very cheerful. The plot involves ghosts, criminals, showgirls, and potato salad. Some of the dialogue is plain ridiculous, too. In one scene, Edwin explains that his brother’s life was turned upside down because he stopped middle-parting his hair!
The fantastic supporting cast includes Virginia Mayo, Vera-Ellen, S. Z. Sakall, and Allen Jenkins! Lots of TMP favorites. All turn out fine performances, though they are truly supports, never coming close to drawing attention away from Kaye and his crazy antics. When Kaye gets a little exhausting to watch, the rest of the cast does bring in moments of easier viewing. (Vera-Ellen’s dance numbers in particular were lovely to watch.)
On a side note: I’d be lying if I said my choice to watch this wasn’t partially motivated by the fact that there’s a librarian character! Only a couple of scenes are spent in the library, but Virginia Mayo is a stylish woman of the information sciences, giving us an un-frumpy good name.
This is a film that will appeal to a very specific viewer: someone who likes Hollywood musicals, doesn’t mind Kaye’s style of humor, and doesn’t mind hints of fantasy or a fair dose of corn. For me, it worked (for the most part), but it’ll definitely overwhelm some viewers. Proceed with caution!
I doubt I’ll remember a single detail of the criminal side-plot a few months out from watching this film. I barely remembered the character names an hour after watching! However, I had fun with Wonder Man and would watch it again if in the mood for something zany. It’s thinly-plotted and entirely wacky, but it has its charms.