About the time my children learned the word “hilarious,” they saw a movie that made them truly understand its meaning. I’d plucked it from the DVD collection of the local library, and after its first go-round at our house, I had to take it out from the library again … and again… and again. I’d remembered it fondly from seeing it on TV as a child, and from rediscovering it during a showing by my college film society. But I’d probably gone more than a decade without seeing it again when I spied it on that library shelf and nabbed it to share it with my kids. Man, am I glad I did.
There is arguably no funnier classic movie to show kids than THE COURT JESTER. Helping it reach those comic heights is its star, Danny Kaye. Kaye was the kind of clever yet goofy comic actor who always went all-out, wholeheartedly committing to the scene, the moment, the gag, as if it were completely real. His warmth, charm, physicality and verbal dexterity shine through no matter how comedy styles have changed. We may live in a ruder, cruder, R-rated comedy age, but THE COURT JESTER manages to be fall-on-the-floor funny without a tacky moment. It’s also Kaye’s very best vehicle. If you show your kid one Danny Kaye movie, let this be it (though after one, they’re going to want more, and HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN makes a good second exposure).
THE COURT JESTER is an affectionate, gentle spoof of the late 1930s & 1940s Robin Hood-type, medieval-set, Technicolor extravaganzas, the kind that featured sword fights, lavish costumes, castles, jousting, horses, and scenery-chewing villains. Think of this as MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL, junior edition. My kids saw THE COURT JESTER after they’d already become fans of the 1938 classic, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, starring Errol Flynn, so they were well primed. Though it isn’t necessary for kids to have had some exposure to those kinds of movies, it’ll enhance their enjoyment when they recognize conventions being tweaked.
The villain in Flynn’s THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD is played by Basil Rathbone (famous for being classic cinema’s Sherlock Holmes), and in a brilliant bit of casting, he’s also the villain in THE COURT JESTER: he’s playing a riff on his old role, and by playing it straight, he plays it perfectly. As the evil, scheming Ravenhurst, he’s the ideal foil for gentle jester Hubert Hawkins (Kaye). Their sword fight is one of the greatest on screen, and arguably the silliest as well.
The plot has to do with a band of forest-dwelling rebels, led by the Black Fox, restoring England’s rightful king – an infant with a purple birthmark on his tush – to the throne of England after usurpers led by self-proclaimed King Roderick have killed the rest of the royal family. Hubert Hawkins (Kaye), a carnival performer turned rebel, is to infiltrate the castle as jester Giacomo in order to steal a key to a secret tunnel and let the rebels in for a surprise attack. But Hawkins/Giacomo is almost immediately put under a spell by a witch called Griselda (Mildred Natwick), lady-in-waiting to Princess Gwendolyn (a young Angela Lansbury). The princess doesn’t want to marry Roderick’s choice for her hand, the stiff Griswold, so Griselda sets her up with Giacomo. Whenever Griselda snaps her fingers at Giacomo (or anyone does in his vicinity), Giacomo turns into an ardent lover and fearless master swordsman. The problem is, a snap of the fingers can bring him out of the spell and turn him back into the justifiably terrified ex-carnival performer. This leads to one comic set-piece after another, and is complicated further by Ravenhurst having hired the real Giacomo to be an assassin, and Hawkins-as-Giacomo trying to save the baby king, all the while Hawkins is also pressing his romantic suit with the lovely female Captain Jean (Glynnis Johns) of the Black Fox’s rebel troop.
Though the movie starts out with an amusing musical number involving Kaye and some little people, it turns more sweet than silly for awhile, until all the plot machinations are set up and underway. Hang in there with a little patience during that set-up. Once Kaye’s Giacomo arrives at the castle, the complications build and escalate the tension, suspense, and comedy too, and soon Kaye makes the most of every comic situation into which he’s thrust. Perhaps the movie’s most famous bit is the tongue-twisting exchange between Kaye and Natwick over where her witch character has hidden the poison meant for Giacomo’s jousting opponent: “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace is the brew that is true.” That’s topped later by another one (concerning a “flagon with a dragon”), and by this time in the movie, kids are usually laughing uncontrollably, to the point where their sides hurt and they cannot stop.
The delightful sound of my kids’ laughter at THE COURT JESTER always puts me in agreement with the words of the movie’s opening and closing song, in which Kaye croons, “Life couldn’t possibly better be.”
THE COURT JESTER (1955) Directed by Melvin Frank & Norman Panama, Written By Norman Panama & Melvin Frank, Words and Music by Sammy Cahn, Sylvia Fine