The throne of rightful king of England, the small babe with the purple pimpernel birthmark, has been usurped by the evil King Roderick. Only the Black Fox can restore the true king to the throne--and all he needs is the king's key to a secret tunnel.
And while he's trying to steal it, someone has to change the king's diapers. The task falls to Hawkins, the gentlest member of the Fox's band. The Fox's lieutenant, Maid Jean, guards Hawkins and the babe while they travel, but when they meet the King's new jester on the road, they decide to initiate a daring plan for Hawkins to replace him, become an intimate at the court, and steal the key.
So, humble Hawkins becomes Giacomo: the king of jesters and jester to the king. But things begin to get zany when the King's daughter falls for Giacomo, the King falls for Jean, people randomly sing what are supposed to be recognition codes, and a witch with very effective spells (and poison pellets) begins to interfere.
Danny Kaye ... Hubert Hawkins
Glynis Johns ... Maid Jean
Basil Rathbone ... Sir Ravenhurst
Angela Lansbury ... Princess Gwendolyn
Cecil Parker ... King Roderick I
Mildred Natwick ... Griselda
Robert Middleton ... Sir Griswold
Michael Pate ... Sir Locksley
Herbert Rudley ... Captain of the Guard
Noel Drayton ... Fergus
John Carradine ... Giacomo
Edward Ashley ... Black Fox
Alan Napier ... Sir Brockhurst
Set in an era similar to Arthurian England, The Court Jester features a questionable king, Roderick I (Cecil Parker), who has taken over by killing off all of his opposition. He's working on building alliances between the most important, powerful and aristocratic families in his kingdom, including Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone); this will help build a trustworthy legitimizing base. His plans include trying to marry his off his daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), to the gruff Sir Griswold (Robert Middleton)--a scheme she firmly opposes. However, Roderick's men overlooked an infant of the otherwise massacred competing royal family. The infant, whom many in the kingdom would believe to be the rightful heir to the throne, is being looked after by the "Black Fox" (Edward Ashley). The Black Fox leads a motley crew; they live in the forest and bear some similarity to Robin Hood and his merry men. One of the Black Fox's men is Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye). After running into a court jester named Giacomo (John Carradine), Hawkins and Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) end up in a scheme to infiltrate Roderick's castle and give the Black Fox's men access for a coup.
Although you cannot tell from my accounting of the premise above, The Court Jester is a comedy, and a very funny one at that. However, it does have a fairly complex plot in its early stages--all of the above is relayed within the first 10 – 15 minutes. This is a slow burner, but as such, the last hour at least is a very solid 10. It's unfortunate that a few minor flaws in the earlier sections of the film (including the complicated plot) caused me to rate The Court Jester as a 9 instead. The last half is so incredible that I wanted to give the film a 10 instead; perhaps on subsequent viewings (this is only the second time I've seen the film; the first was many years ago) the opening sections will work better for me.
As one of the earliest "VistaVision" films, The Court Jester looks gorgeous. It is full of lush, extremely saturated color. The few panoramic landscape shots are stunning and almost surreal. Most of the film is set within Roderick's castle, however, which is no less attractive visually. Producers/directors/writers Melvin Frank and Norman Panama and their crew certainly got the period setting right. The Court Jester is just as authentic feeling as Knights of the Round Table (1953) or The Black Knight (1954), both part of a popular trend of the era of Arthurian and related films, leading to this satire.
The cast is excellent, even if some members such severely underused, such as Carradine and to an extent Rathbone. Of course, The Court Jester is really a showcase for Kaye's considerable and diverse talents. Kaye was adept at quickly changing characters, as in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), and gets to put that skill to great use here, first in disguises, then as the jester, and most importantly, as a hypnotized pawn in a number of "games". Princess Gwendolyn's matron, Griselda (Mildred Natwick), finds cause to put Hawkins under a spell to make him fall in love with the Princess, making a finger snap the cue for his hypnotic transitions. This leads to a hilarious extended sequence where different characters are interacting with Hawkins for different covert ends--some fueled by mistaken identity--and continually snapping their fingers. Kaye as Hawkins as Giacomo has to keep toggling back and forth between two personalities, neither of which knows about the other. Meanwhile, complicated plans are being made which he is expected to follow. Even funnier is that despite himself, he basically manages to follow the plans.
It's a bit silly, but the humor in The Court Jester is all about silliness--it's appropriate for the titular role and more importantly, it's just plain funny. From the finger snapping sequence through the end of the film is one long build up with increasingly outrageous situations, until we finally arrive at pandemonium, complete with tens of acrobatic midgets battling a cadre of knights in a scene remarkably prescient of the anarchic screwball comedies of the latter half of the 1960s.
Kaye's vocal talents are also put to considerable use, both in songs and in rapid-fire, sometimes nonsensical alliterative rhymes. There are a number of very famous--and rightfully so--instances of the latter throughout the film including the "vessel with the pestle/chalice from the palace/flagon with the dragon/brew that is true" bit, which has oddly taken on a life of its own outside of the film, and which like all of the comedy throughout the film slowly builds up to a hilarious climax.
Kaye also does a lot of physical comedy, including my favorite bit--the super-fast knighting ceremony, and he even does a bit of mostly serious fencing with Rathbone. Watching The Court Jester can only make one lament that Kaye was not featured in even more films; he was extremely talented and very unique.
The Court Jester has influenced many later films, including such diverse works as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) (and by extension Jabberwocky, 1977) and A Kid in King Arthur's Court (1995). But influence or not, this is a masterpiece despite its flaws, and should be viewed at least once by any cinephile worth his or her weight in purple pimpernels.
IMHO, one of the top funny films. I saw it when it first came out, and we enjoyed it so much, we nearly bought tickets to see it again, right away.
There are so many high points in the film that listing them would put me over quota. A close relative who's nearly humorless to this day says, "Get it? Got it. Good," when she wants to underscore a point she's made. Once in a while, I'll mutter "The vessel with the pestle..." when things seem to be getting a tad complicated. The film has impacted me significantly.
The lyrics of some of the sings are really good. "The Malajusted Jester" seems like something out of a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.
This is doubtless Danny Kaye's comedic magnum opus. It isn't a "must see" (what is?) but if you haven't seen it, you're missing a lot.
The Court Jester (1956) is a superlative, priceless treasure of the 20th Century. This classic tale combines several grand legends such as Robin Hood, Giacomo, and Dartagnan's Daughter with the more base nobility of the little baby's royal birthmark. (Once seen, it is impossible to forget the repetitive flipping scene used to obtain more converts.)
Everyone should by now know the plot: once the hapless carnival entertainer Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) assumes the identity of the new court jester Giacomo (who happens to well deserve his reputation as a skillful assassin), Hawkins is thrown into one court intrigue after another, each beyond his control or understanding.
As the socially powerless court jester, Hawkins has to survive not only accidents and royal petulance, but deliberate attempts at his execution as part of court intrigue.
So I won't waste time recapping all that.
Instead, I'd like to mention the still potent generation gap politics and gender politics that routinely consumed the weakest of mediaeval society, sometimes court jesters, or often just women.
King Roderick has a rather cynical and self-possessed daughter in the Princess Gwendolyn (a shockingly young and beautiful Angela Lansbury), whom he nastily views as more a threat than a loved one, and their war of wills is hilarious. But he needs her alive because he has no male heir, so Gwendolyn regularly threatens suicide whenever she doesn't want to do something: "Harm one hair on her head, and I throw myself from the highest turret", she announces when her father tries to get rid of Gwendolyn's nanny.
The king schemes to get his daughter out of the castle by marrying her off "way up North" to the "grim and grizzly, gruesome Griswold".
Of course, she has no intention of going. "I am the King. If it pleases me, you will marry Griswold", he tries to command her. "-If it pleases you so much, you marry Griswold!" retorts his witty daughter.
Gwendolyn has a nanny/personal confidant in Grizelda (Mildred Natwick), the "witch" (actually a scientist, they just didn't have a word for that yet), who has raised the Princess to believe in more girlish romance, partly to soften up Gwendolyn's belligerent cynicism. Unfortunately, with such a brutal horse-trade as her proposed marriage to Sir Griswold of Macklewein, girlish fancies of romance are starting to fly out the window of Gwendolyn's heart, and she matter-of-factly threatens Grizelda with a dirk (a small dagger) if "the witch" can't arrange a better alternative.
Desperate to save both their lives, Grizelda (look, she ain't no witch. She has pills and potions. That makes her a chemist, alright?) pulls out every trick in her book. She first proffers the court jester as a romantic alternative to the princess, and then mesmerizes him to make sure he courts the princess as ardently as the princess wants. Grizelda's hypnosis of "Giacomo" imbues him with super-confidence, so he CAN fight for his life as well as Gwendolyn's hand. Mildred Natwick obviously had a terrific time pretend-hypnotizing Danny Kaye. "Master, you can snap me in and snap me out", he drools at her; and later, Kaye's impeccable talents at physical comedy have him jerking to every unconscious snap of everyone's fingers.
However, Hawkins is already in love with the only woman from their guerilla group back in the forest, Capt. Jean, aka Maid Jean (Glynis Johns), who is, of course, beautiful and smart, and could whip his narrow butt in a heartbeat, if only she didn't LIKE him so much. Before they both arrived through different routes at King Roderick's castle, they had one romantic night together in an emergency hut as they sheltered the true heir to the throne. As they talk of politics in the hut, and regret about the loss of the throne, she ends up seducing herself (and it's nice to see how that works) as she reflects to him that "my father made me everything I am". To his credit, Hawkins reassures her that her father "does beautiful work", in a very satisfying gender role reversal for 1956. Sadly there is not enough chemistry between them, and there SHOULD'VE been, because the rest of the scene is very honest.
The homage scenes to The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), the Errol Flynn classic with the much younger Basil Rathbone, are real gifts. They include the procession of robed monks secreting reinforcements, and Rathbone doing himself in the earlier role.
But my personal favourite is the spoof scene of Errol Flynn accidentally cutting through one humungous candle in the 1938 film. In The Court Jester (1956), Danny Kaye, fencing FAR TOO WELL against Rathbone in his hypnosis-fortified guise, deliberately cuts a swath through an entire row of candles without any apparent effect-until he breathes on the candles, and they all drop off their candlesticks on cue. This Court Jester scene has stuck in my mind from childhood.
The entire supporting cast is terrific. Cecil Parker's King Roderick eventually becomes quite personable as he relaxes into his regal position and quips with "Giacomo"; and he's very funny with Maid Jean as a lecherous royal repelled by her clever claim to having an STD! WOW, pretty contemporary for 1956, don't you think?
I really love all the musical numbers as well. They are so well integrated that they provide a deeper understanding of the plot. Kaye's incredible, once-in-a-lifetime-find wordsmith-wife Sylvia Fine crafted ALL his tonguetwisters, including these (songs). And Kaye just flips them off as if they were nothing.
It's a shame we don't see more jester's hard knocks to establish the jester MILIEU. Nevertheless I always get blown away by the final lyrics of The Maladjusted Jester: ".For a jester's chief employment is to kill himself for your enjoyment/ And a jester unemployed is nobody's fool!"
There is a lot of political commentary in this alleged piece of fluff.
* Unimpressed with him in tights, producers of the film made Danny Kaye wear 'leg falsies' to improve the shape of his legs. This adds a touch of irony when Hubert Hawkins offers the princess all of him, including his legs and calves.
* Danny Kaye's daughter, Dena Kaye, said for the rest of his life, when people recognized Danny in a restaurant, they would walk up and spout the entire "brew that is true" speech.
* Basil Rathbone was a world-class fencer and it was due to his efforts that the hilarious fencing scene was filmed without injury. He later admitted that several times he was almost skewered by Danny Kaye's sword.
* But then again... In the famous "snapping" swordfight between Kaye and Rathbone, Kaye's sword movements were too fast for Rathbone, as he was 63 at the time of filming. The film's fight choreographer dressed up as Rathbone's character and was filmed from behind for the fast sections. If you look, you can see that most of the fight consists of "Rathbone" from the back, then shots of the real Rathbone standing "en garde".
* The "Now I can shoot and toot" speech during "The Maladjusted Jester" was previously said by Danny Kaye in his first feature role in Up in Arms (1944)
* Some songs that were written but not heard in the film are "I Live To Love" (sung by Kaye to Angela Lansbury when he swings into her bedroom) and an extended "Pass the Basket" number when Kaye appears before the King (Just prior to the famous "Maladjusted Jester"). Both songs were, however, recorded and released on the film's companion record.
* "The American Legion Zouaves of Richard F. Smith Post No. 29, Jackson, Michigan" were a U.S. Civil War reenactment group. They performed the intricate high speed marching maneuvers during the knighting ceremony. The United States Army adopted the Model 1863 Zouave rifle, a percussion or "cap-and-ball" muzzle-loader, which was manufactured by Remington. Obviously the marching knights could not be armed with Civil War-era rifles in the movie. The original Zouave units were North African regiments of the French Army, beginning earlier in the 1800s and serving through both World Wars.