My sense of humor is an acquired taste; the kind that makes people double over with laughter or with groans of deeply-felt-suffering (sometimes both). My favorite jokes involve puns, wordplay, and linguistic misunderstandings. I’m also a great fan of slapstick and “mugging” (pulling faces); as a trained singer, silly voices are my forte (ba-dum-tssh). I owe this comedic inheritance largely to one man: Danny Kaye.
My first lesson in comedy (other than the singing orange on Sesame Street) was Kaye’s performance as the clown to Bing Crosby’s Mr. Cool in White Christmas. About five years later, shortly after my family had moved to Maryland, my dad brought home a copy of The Court Jester (1955). He promised that it was the perfect film to watch during the Thanksgiving Break, as there was plenty of “turkey” to go around; thus proving that my parents were not entirely blameless in the creation of my silly sensibilities. As summarized on its IMDd page: “A hapless carnival performer masquerades as the court jester as part of a plot against an evil ruler who has overthrown the rightful king.”
The Court Jester is set in a fairytale kingdom populated by witches, princesses, wicked tyrants, knights, wenches, and noble thieves. Although it is not, in the strictest sense, a musical, the film opens with a clever bit of narrative singing from Kaye. Dressed in a two-toned colored tunic and tights, Kaye dances as the credits roll, literally telling viewers all they need to know about what is to follow: “A plot we got, quite a lot. As it unfolds you’ll see: What starts like a scary tale ends like a fairy tale…” This sequence sets the tone of the movie, which never takes itself seriously. In fact, one element that makes this film ideal for multi-age viewing is how it subverts “once upon a time” while simultaneously embracing it. For example, after the credits, the film shifts to a forest (complete with rope-like vines perfect for dramatic entrances), and we are introduced to our hero, “The Black Fox,” a Robin Hood-esque figure who rights what needs right-ing. Only it’s not the Fox at all, but the hapless Hubert Hawkins (Kaye); he’s dressed up and with no place to go, as he is one of the lowliest of The Fox’s merry men. Eventually, however, events conspire to thrust Hawkins into the fray, and he succeeds in blundering his way into a happy ending. As the titular character, Kaye’s full range of talents is on display: he sings, he dances, he talks really fast (and in a variety of accents), does sound effects, and carries off some brilliant physical comedy. There is a perpetual twinkle in Kaye’s big blue eyes, which never dims as he capers from scene to scene.
Moreover, the film’s supporting ensemble is packed with classic Hollywood greats. Of particular note are The Court Jester’s fair maidens, played by Glynis Johns (a decade before her memorable Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins), and a young Angela Lansbury, who stars as the spoiled Princess Gwendolyn. Like the film’s protagonist, both Johns and Lansbury get to play against type. Gwendolyn, although a hopeless romantic, is tired of waiting around her tower for her true love, and takes aggressive measures in pursuit of her “ever after,” while Jean (played by Johns) is one of The Fox’s most trusted agents, even while wearing some gorgeous gowns (designed by Edith Head). However, one of the real delights of the film is Basil Rathbone, who gets to play the same courtly, but conniving, villain he portrays in The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Mark of Zorro, Ivanhoe, etc. No one can chew scenery in these roles like Rathbone, but in The Court Jester he really gets to enjoy the taste. Rathbone plays Sir Ravenhurst with a knowing bravado, and his final fight with Hawkins is one of the funniest scenes in the film, switching between moments of swashbuckling daring to side-splitting buffoonery. As a trained fencer, Rathbone remarked how the scene was, in reality, one of his most dangerous to film, as Kaye’s untrained flailing (even with a prop sword) could have resulted in serious injury to both actors if their timing was even the slightest-bit off.
In my opinion, The Court Jester truly distinguishes itself from other films through its clever comedy. In addition to the slapstick I alluded to earlier, the movie’s dialogue is some of the most fun to memorize and perform. As a child, I was fascinated with sounds and words, which is one reason why Kaye was one my favorite comedians. Throughout his career, he was the master of funny voices and patter (rapid-fire speaking), which requires precise timing and musicality, which Kaye possessed as a song and dance man. The Court Jester is one of his finest films, built around Kaye’s elastic athleticism and his ability to switch antics at the drop of a hat (or in this case, a snap of the fingers). However, the standout scene that I’d wager most viewers end up quoting is the one about “The Pellet with the Poison.” For singers, or anyone looking to practice their diction, I find this dialogue infinitely more rewarding then “Peter Piper” and his peppers. You can watch the scene at the link above, but here is a brief snippet:
“Hawkins: The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
Griselda: Right. But there’s been a change: they broke the chalice from the palace!
Hawkins: They *broke* the chalice from the palace?
Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
Hawkins: A flagon…?
Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!
Hawkins: The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Griselda: Just remember that.”
In closing, here is what The Court Jester has to offer:
- A joyous film-viewing experience, sure to induce laughter as infectious as any medieval plague… but a lot more fun
- A classic movie that showcases the talents of many tinseltown icons including Kaye, Rathbone, Johns, Lansbury, and Head; not to mention character-greats like Cecil Parker (King Roderick) and Mildred Natwick (Griselda. “Gris-who-lda?” Griselda, the Witch)
- Word-based comedy that is smart, snappy, and simply-delightful to share with others
Head’s Up: This movie is squeaky-clean. There are moments where the wicked King is a bit lecherous, but nothing happens. A few henchmen get catapulted from the castle turrets, but their cloth-dummies splashdown safe and sound in the castle moat. Everyone is very chivalrous, and there is a happily ever after for all (on the side of good, that is).
What Memories do you have of this film? Do you have Suggestions for my next post? Additional Resources to share on this one? Please, Comment below!
As always, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”