DirectorMelvin Frank/Norman Panama
Release Date(s)1955 (January 26, 2021)
Studio(s)Dena Enterprises/Paramount Pictures (Paramount Presents #13)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B-
After attracting attention with his performance in Broadway’s Lady In the Dark in 1941, Danny Kaye was hired by Sam Goldwyn and made a series of successful screen comedies, but his masterpiece, made years later, is easily The Court Jester. The medieval tale provided Kaye with a narrative script rather than isolated comic bits and taps his talents as master of tongue twisters, pseudo-foreign languages, and comic ditties as well as his charm and athleticism. He makes for an unusual heroic lead—as adept with slapstick as he is with multiple intrigues.
Kaye’s character, Hawkins, has abandoned his career as an itinerant entertainer to join the followers of the Black Fox, a Robin Hood-style rebel whose goal is to put the rightful king on the throne. The gentlest member of the Fox’s band, Hawkins is put in charge of caring for the rightful king, a baby who bears on his backside the royal birthmark, the purple pimpernel. The Fox’s plan calls for his captain, Jean (Glynis Johns), to deliver Hawkins and the baby to the castle.
Along the way, they encounter Giacomo (John Carradine), the new court jester to the royal usurper King Roderick (Cecil Parker). Adept at impersonation, Hawkins assumes Giacomo’s identity in order to enter Roderick’s palace. But unbeknownst to Hawkins, Giacomo is also a skilled assassin, hired by Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) to kill Roderick and acquire the throne for himself. As Giacomo, Hawkins finds himself thrust into court intrigue with the king’s daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), a witch (Mildred Natwick) who casts a spell on him, and confusing romantic entanglements.
Written and directed by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, The Court Jester is one of the funniest comedies of the 1950s. Kaye has never been showcased better. His songs, with lyrics by Sylvia Fine, are gleefully clever. As the opening credits unfold, Kaye breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly with the song Life Could Not Better Be introducing melodically the characters and events to come. In The Maladjusted Jester, Hawkins as Giacomo performs a one-man production number that might be considered an early form of rap along with a helping of physical comedy.
Movie lovers will appreciate the casting of Basil Rathbone as the villain, since he took on a similar role in two major films, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro, where he displayed his expert swordsmanship against Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. The sword fight in The Court Jester is a highlight. Under a spell, Hawkins is hypnotized into believing himself to be a superb swordsman. He handles himself admirably against Ravenhurst but when he hears a finger snap, he’s switched back into his inept self. Another finger snap makes him not only expert with his sword but arrogant too, pouring himself a drink while parrying with Ravenhurst. More finger snaps ensue with Hawkins switching back and forth between swordsman extraordinaire and terrified novice.
The supporting cast is terrific. Angela Lansbury is glamorous as the coquettish Princess. Cecil Parker is very funny as an often distracted monarch with an eye for Jean. And Mildred Natwick, as the black-clad witch and Princess Gwendolyn’s confidante, initiates one of the film’s funniest wordplay scenes, involving which of two drinking vessels contains “the pellet with the poison.”
Danny Kaye is perfect, conveying bewilderment, bravado, wackiness, nimble wordplay, and swashbuckling heroism. Under Griselda’s spell, he even takes on the role of suave lover to woo Princess Gwendolyn. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, and the direction by Panama and Frank is crisp. Both a fine spoof and a showcase for Kaye, The Court Jester elicits laughs even on subsequent viewings. The period setting makes it timeless.
The Paramount Presents Blu-ray edition of the film contains a new 6K restoration from the original VistaVision negative. Featuring 1080p resolution, it is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Technicolor images are rich and deeply saturated, with the bold red of the king’s men’s uniforms, Ravenhurst’s purple doublet, and the pomp and pageantry of the knighting ceremony especially brilliant, with primary hues on shields, costumes, tents, and banners. Men’s beards show individual hairs rather than patches of solid brown or black. Flesh tones are creamy and Angela Lansbury and Glynis Johns both look lovely. Ray June’s photography uses matte shots during the sword fight between Ravenhurst and Hawkins that make it appear they are teetering on the castle’s battlement. These effects are integrated seamlessly with the actors.
Three audio tracks are available: English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio, German 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital, and French 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital. Subtitle options include English, English SDH, German, and French. Dialogue clarity is excellent, essential when many of the gags depend on precise articulation. Interestingly, verbal comedy is on equal footing with physical comedy. Danny Kaye is masterful at singing complex lyrics, reciting tongue twisters, and using nonsense dialect banter in German, French, and Italian that sounds like the actual languages. Sound effects include a bolt of lightning striking Hawkins’ armor, maces hitting shields during the joust, and the melee caused when Hawkins’ midget acrobat friends take on the bad guys.
Bonus materials on the Region Free Blu-ray release include Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Court Jester and the film’s theatrical trailer. The film contains 32 chapters for easy access, and the slipcase housing a clear amaray case opens up to show a color reprint of the original poster. Inside the amaray case are behind-the-scenes photos and a quote from Leonard Maltin.
Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Court Jester – The film critic and historian notes that writers and directors Norman Panama and Melvin Frank met as students at the University of Chicago. After graduation, they made their way to Hollywood, where they joined the writing staff of Bob Hope’s radio show. For his movies, Hope would call on his radio staff to write one-liners and gags. This led to the team’s writing My Favorite Blonde, a big hit for Hope. The team continued to work for him for the next 20 years, eventually “getting the clout to write their own screenplays.” They worked often with Danny Kaye, most successfully on The Court Jester. Ray June’s cinematography made the film look beautiful with its MGM style of lush Technicolor production. The film pays homage to The Adventures of Robin Hood but is an original with numerous twists and turns. The happy ending is never in doubt but getting there is the challenge. The film’s budget of $4 million was generous by mid-1950s standards and allowed for a first-rate cast and an elaborate production. Brief overviews are providing for the supporting cast. Kaye, who had just starred with Bing Crosby in the hit film White Christmas, had to be not only likable but the hero in The Court Jester. The musical numbers are well integrated and never interrupt the flow of continuity. The Maladjusted Jester, with lyrics by Sylvia Fine, effectively and entertainingly shows off Kaye’s talents. As Maltin concludes, “The movie is like an old friend you never want to drift out of your life.”
Theatrical Trailer – The trailer heralds “Paramount Sweeps You Back to the Rousing Days When England Hailed Its Bravest Knight!” and then shows comic moments from the film. An off-screen narrator plays up Danny Kaye’s comedy and derring-do and we see some action moments. “All Hail the King of Comedy in His Royal Triumph of Hilarity... Danny Kaye.”
The Court Jester is as high-spirited and action-packed as the cinematic adventures it parodies. It is also full of hilarity, from Hawkins’ presentation at court as the jester, to his instant personality changes under hypnosis, to his rapid-fire elevation to knighthood. With its tongue-twisting wordplay, music, dancing, brilliant color, and extravagant production, it is a joyous excursion into a fairy tale world.
- Dennis Seuling