A flop, amazingly, when it was first released in 1955, The Court Jester is pretty much perfect in every way. It has the looks, the jokes, the action and the stars, in particular a perfectly cast Danny Kaye doing what he does best.
There are stories of Kaye holding theatre audiences spellbound just sitting on the edge of the stage and reminiscing, and his ability (or perhaps his need) to command attention suits him perfectly to the role of a carnival entertainer using his talents to save the realm.
The wicked King Roderick (Cecil Parker) has usurped the rightful ruler and killed the royal family. All except the infant prince, identifiable by a birthmark on his bottom, whose continuing existence is a persistent threat to Roderick’s claim. Roderick keeps hold of power thanks to the support of a powerful noble, Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). Enter Hubert Hawkins (Kaye), the loyal milquetoast drafted in by a rebel alliance to gain access to the castle via secret tunnels, rescue the infant and secure the throne for its rightful ruler.
There is hypnotism, there is romance, there is jousting and duelling, there are passable songs by Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine, but mostly there is Danny Kaye being Danny Kaye, careering from one set-up to the next. Parker and Rathbone are top-notch, of course, but there’s also a youthful Angela Lansbury as a princess and a pantomime girl-in-tights role for Glynis Johns as Maid Jean.
We’re in Hollywood’s version of Olde England, as near as dammit a recreation of the ambience that The Adventures of Robin Hood delivered in 1939. Its hissable baddie was also Basil Rathbone, and though it’s more than 15 years later and he’s past his prime, Rathbone’s again a plausible, and hissable villain. Though one of Hollywood’s finest swordsmen (rapier variety), Rathbone’s in his 60s by 1955 and visibly puffed in his first screen duel. Even so, he’s remarkably lithe and limber and it’s obvious that Sir Ravenhurst would make mincemeat of the much younger Hawkins (Kaye is about 44) in any real set-to.
If Maid Jean is a close approximation of Maid Marian, then Black Fox is the equivalent of Robin Hood, Edward Ashley clearly having been chosen because he looks the part but isn’t going to block the star’s light. As with Robin Hood, it’s all shot on Technicolor with a gaudy colour palette designed to ping off the screen. Ridiculous colours, really, with Kaye in spangly gold tights at one point and Rathbone often wrapped in mauve silk or purple velvet like a Christmas present from a billionaire.
The other bad-guy men in tights seem to have been chosen for their long thigh bones – regular screen villain Michael Pate and Alan Napier (Batman’s butler Alfred on TV in the 1960s) among them as two of Sir Ravenhurst’s henchmen.
Like Danny Kaye, The Court Jester moves at speed, thanks to nimble direction by longtime collaborators Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, who had started out as gag writers for the likes of Milton Berle and Bob Hope before moving into the movies. They also wrote the script, which contains the classic “pestle with the vessel” exchange (“I’ve got it! ‘The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!’ Right?”), a fast and fun distillation of the film down to an essence.
So how could it fail? Why a flop? Watching it now it’s a mystery. The whole “brew that is true” stuff followed Kaye for the rest of his life. Maybe audiences didn’t want to see Robin Hood parodied. It’s a mystery. For modern audiences wondering where to start with Danny Kaye, this is the place. It’s by a long way his best film.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021