The Court Jester

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone

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.

Hubert and Maid Jean
Hubert and Maid Jean


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









The Avengers: Series 5, Episode 19 – The £50,000 Breakfast

Pauline Delaney as Mrs Rhodes, with ventriloquist's dummy

 

The £50,000 Breakfast is a Cathy Gale-era episode (Death of a Great Dane) originally written by Roger Marshall and then reworked here by Brian Clemens into an Emma Peel-era one. And though it’s tempting to do a compare and contrast – as if to definitively nail the differences between the two eras – that can’t quite be done because Death of a Great Dane really marked the beginning of classic-era Avengers with its mad plots, people with odd names, extras thin (ish) on the ground and a general air of unreality all-pervading.

The same opener launches both – a man dies (here it’s a ventriloquist) and his stomach is found to contain a haul of diamonds. Steed and Peel are soon on the case, Mrs Peel off to talk to the dead man’s wife, Steed meeting the man’s employer, a mysterious financier magnate by name of Litoff, where Steed is quizzed about his bowler hat (a Benson, we learn) by Litoff’s butler (played here by effortlessly superior Cecil Parker).

Actually, Steed doesn’t meet Litoff – Steed’s not important enough – but Litoff’s right-hand woman Miss Pegram (the formidable Yolande Turner) and tries to pass himself off as a chancer willing to return diamonds he believes belonged originally to Litoff.

Do the diamonds have anything to do with the vast amount of wealth that’s been leaving British shores in recent months?

It’s notable that Pegram is a woman rather than the more usual right-hand man, since there’s obvious gender rebalancing going on in this episode vis a vis the original. More is evident when Mrs Peel heads to a shop selling old school ties, run by a modern young miss – it was Steed made this visit in the original, and a man ran the shop.

Another change. The wine-tasting in the original, an opportunity for fabulous one-upmanship, has been replaced by a very posh cigar-tasting, where Steed utters the line “Why the jungle music?” while nodding towards a group of calypso players, which is either a breathtaking bit of old-school racism (and incidentally a rare relaxing of The Avengers “no blacks” rule), or canny screenwriting – Steed playing to the prejudices of the man he wants to get close to, Litoff’s doctor Sir James Arnall (David Langton).

 

Mrs Peel in handcuffs and John Steed trying to undo them
Surely Steed isn’t struggling?

 

Langton is another bit of fine broad-brush character casting in an episode notable for them – Parker I’ve mentioned but Cardew Robinson (famous as Cardew “the Cad” to my parents’ generation) is also extremely good value as a vicar who specialises in burying dearly departed pets.

What stands out throughout is the dark tone and thriller-ish aspect, which were both hallmarks of the Gale era.

The big fight finish is also a tough affair, with Mrs Peel taking on right-hand-woman Miss Pegram in a brawl relying only a touch on speeded-up film to make things work (which always looks like the act of desperation it is).

There’s quite a lot of plot, a fair few people and no shortage of unnecessary detail in this episode – why a ventriloquist, for example? – and to get through it all the actors gabble their lines and scenes often don’t have quite enough air to breathe.

The original is better, poor picture quality, terrible sound and ungainly TV cameras notwithstanding. And though Parker is terribly good as an underling long reconciled to his discovery that his social superiors are, morally, scumbags, he’s outdone by the sly, supercilious Leslie French in the original. But then French was always known as a scene (if not show) stealer.

 

 

 

 

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