Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
The Court Jester (1955)
Despite his title role in the film, Danny Kaye was a king of cinema in his prime. Despite only appearing in two dozen films, his roles in White Christmas, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Hans Christian Andersen secured his iconic status. In The Court Jester, Kaye gets to use the entire range of his talents in the sort of manic display that many 50s comedies turned out to be. Still in the vein of classic, Golden Age Hollywood, it’s a movie that includes and moves beyond the elements of several genres, so even though it’s labeled a comedy, it’s probably closer to an action-comedy-romance-musical-farce. Plus, it features a hot Angela Lansbury. That’s right. Hot Angela Lansbury.
Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a devil-may-care carnival performer who falls in with a band of outlaws led by The Black Fox (Edward Ashley) and soon finds himself with the task of bringing the rightful heir to the throne – a small infant – across enemy lines into the court of the vicious King Roderick (Cecil Parker). Hubert achieves this by impersonating the King’s new court jester, Giacomo The King of Jesters, and subsequently gets into a slew of hilarious situations leading up to The Black Fox’s men storming the castle to overthrow the evil reign of the false king.
If you’re seeing the Robin Hood story, you’re spot on, but think of The Court Jester as a Robin Hood tale with no Robin Hood. The enigmatic Black Fox – which Hubert is accused of being several times – only shows up in true form randomly throughout the story which leaves Hubert on his own most of the time to fumble his way to victory. This also leaves him free to fall for the beautiful Maid Jean (Glynis Johns), the real brain behind most of the operation, and to romance the King’s daughter, Princess Gwendolyn – the aforementioned hot Angela Lansbury. If you’re at all surprised by that – as I was when I first saw it – keep in mind that it was made when she was only thirty years old, and she pulls off the buxom-maiden role to perfection.
With most comedies that were still reveling in the world of Vaudeville despite three decades of separation, The Court Jester throws the kitchen sink at the audience – people bursting into songs randomly, cases of mistaken identity, a witch that hypnotizes Hubert, tongue twisters, instrumental interludes, marching routines, sword fights, catapults, acrobatic feats, and classic slapstick gags. Oh, and a dash of cheese-tastic harlequin romance. And a band of little people that save the day. Of course.
Perhaps the most famous scene involves Danny Kaye performing the tongue twister: “The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.” This line continues to get muddled, especially when the chalice from the palace breaks and is replaced by a flagon with a dragon etched on it. In a way, it’s this sort of word play that acted as a forerunner for more modern comedies like Blazing Saddles and, fittingly, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
At the time it was made, The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy ever made with a whopping budget of $4 million. Today, it’s a great way to look back on one of the funniest movies from the career of a Hollywood comic legend. It’s got something for everyone with its miscellaneous method of advancing the plot through songs, dance routines, tongue twisting sessions, and slapstick scenes. Plus, you get to see another legend, Basil Rathbone, acting despicable and showing off his sword fighting skills. All in all, it’s a solid old-school Hollywood distraction the way they were always intended to be.
You’ll dig it if you dug:
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Robin Hood: Men in Tights
or if you’ve ever gotten strangely turned on by “Murder, She Wrote”