In Inka Dinka Doo, Jhan Robbins writes a biography of Jimmy Durante, beginning with his birth to a large immigrant family in the family’s kitchen to his early days playing dives in New York as a ragtime piano players to vaudeville success and motion picture hits and misses all the way to his death in 1980.
To Robbins, its a mystery. In the introduction, he lays out well what the mystery is, “Durante wasn’t a singer like Sinatra any more than he was a comic technician like Bob Hope. He lacked the polish of Johnny Carson, the bluntness of Humphrey Bogart. When malapropisms and errors were deliberately inserted into his scripts he would mispronounce the mispronunciations. Other entertainers squeezed laughs out of vulgarity but not he. What was his secret?”
Robbins had gotten to know Durante over more than 20 years. The book is chock full of stories that tell the tale of Durante’s uncommon decency and kindness. Robbins’ book could seem one-sided but as Robbins stated, he looked desperately to find Durante detractors but couldn’t find any. The secret to Durante’s success was his genuine warmth and heart which spills out over the nearly 200 pages in Inka Dinka Doo.
We learn of Durante’s closest and deepest friendships with his longtime partners Lou Clayton and Eddie Jackson as well as Eddie Cantor. His rocky career during Prohibition and his even bumpier landing at MGM in the 1930s where he continually drew forgettable roles even after getting a high dollar star contract. We learn of his career on radio and triumphant entry into the new age of television.
The book is littered with anecdotes that show Durante’s heart and spirit. Durante was an extremely friendly person. In fact, Hollywood tour buses made a point to stop by his house knowing that he would run out and greet the bus, sometimes with a pitcher of lemonade to sell. It was Durante’s friendliness that got him out of the speakeasy business as an undercover prohibition agent came to the door and asked for him. Durante came down and the agent greeted him by name and Durante responded warmly. Then the agent complained of not being admitted and Durante let the guy in and the agent gathered evidence and the The Club Durant was shuttered the next evening.
Robbins also wrote of Durante’s loyalty and concern for others. When a fading Buster Keaton was released by MGM, Durante pleaded with Louie B Mayer on Keaton’s behalf and won Keaton’s reinstatement. When attending a Dodgers’ game, Durante silenced a heckler who was mocking young future Hall of Fame Catcher Roy Campanella because he was black. Durante was kind and considerate even though he pronounced Campanella’s name as “Cantorbella.”
The book is full of such stories and makes for a light and engaging read with chapters slice up perfectly in digestible chunks.
I’d offer two criticisms of the book. First, I think Robbins did a bit of an injustice to both Durante’s first wife (who left Durante a widower in 1943) in the degree of his negative portrayal of her. Much of the source material for this information appears to be Durante’s longtime friend Eddie Jackson who the first Mrs. Durante didn’t get along with. What Robbins ended up with was a somewhat one side portrayal of Jeanne Durante. In addition, as Robbins stated, Durante never criticized or spoke negatively of Jeanne and so Robbins’ portrayal of Jeanne wasn’t quite in the spirit of Schnozolla.
In addition, the book has a somewhat uneven quality to it. For example, Robbins writes in painstaking detail about the one flop after another that MGM put Durante into. He then tells us that Durante’s pictures from the mid-1940s were better, but mentions no film by name between In the Army Now (1941) and The Last Judgment (1961). The book also tells us little about Durante’s latter day career as a ballad singer, a remarkable new direction for his that occurred at age 66. Of course, Inka Dinka Doo was released before Sleepless in Seattle which created new interest in Durante’s ballads with Durante’s performance of “As Time Goes By” and “Make Someone Happy” featuring prominently in the film.
Overall, there’s more to Durante’s life and career than this 200-page volume provides, however Robbins wrote with obvious affection for his subject and this book is not a bad place to start if you’re interested in learning about one of America’s best-loved entertainers. The book is out of print but may be available at your library (or through an interlibrary loan) or also as a used book through Amazon.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5.0 stars.
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