The Court Jester (Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, 1955)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Court Jester.

criterion logoIn this swashbuckling comic farce, star Danny Kaye plays kind-hearted entertainer Hubert Hawkins who disguises himself as the legendary king of jesters Giancomo.  Hawkins infiltrates the court of the usurping King Roderick (Cecil Parker) and his conniving adviser Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone), but when a sorceress hypnotizes him, royal chaos ensues as Hawkins also believes he is an infamous assassin, alternating identities at the snap of a finger.  Between wordplay and swordplay, Danny Kaye displays his fancy footwork and his comic genius.  With a stellar supporting cast, including Glynis Johns, Angela Lansbury, and Mildred Natwick, Kaye sings and dances among dueling knights and damsels in distress, proving through it all that this jester is one of the original kings of comedy.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored 4K digital film transfer, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • “The Secret Life of Danny Kaye,” Edward R. Murrow’s 1956 See It Now episode following Kaye on his 10 country, 50,000 mile tour as a UNICEF ambassador
  • Assignment: Children, Paramount’s 19-minute film for UNICEF documenting Kaye’s examination of the conditions children face in the Third World
  • Three appearances by Kaye on What’s My Line?
  • The Secret Life of Danny Kaye, a 2012 BBC Radio 2 documentary narrated by Elliott Gould and including interviews with Kaye, his daughter Dena Kaye, and performers including Shirley MacLaine, Pat Boone, Michael Caine, Rob Reiner, Anne Rutherford, and Glynis Roberts
  • An Evening with Danny Kaye and the New York Philharmonic,” a 1981 episode of Live from Lincoln Center featuring Kaye as guest conductor
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by comedian Bill Hader

Time is rarely kind to the legacies of television stars and comedians and it’s hard to believe that someone as famous as Danny Kaye once was can now be nearly unknown today.  Yet in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Kaye was a gigantic star – a household name thanks to celebrated and award-winning efforts on film, TV, music, stage, and radio and tireless philanthropic work.  Kaye hosted CBS radio’s popular The Danny Kaye Show, recorded smash hits with the Andrews Sisters, starred in various films including the holiday classic White Christmas (Michael Curtiz, 1954), hosted the 1952 Academy Awards, was a favourite stage performer of the British royal family, hosted CBS television’s Emmy and Peabody-winning The Danny Kaye Show, and served as a UNICEF ambassador for decades (to only scratch the surface of Kaye’s prolific career).  The New York-born star should be more widely embraced as the musical and comedic icon he is and so what better place to start for the Criterion Collection than Kaye’s best known role as The Court Jester?

Kaye stars as a Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel to a Robin Hood-style outlaw, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley).  Hawkins is paired with one of the Black Fox’s lieutenants, Captain Jean (Glynis Johns), to transport the rightful heir to the throne across the country.  Along the way, they meet the usurping King Roderick’s (Cecil Parker) new jester Giacomo (John Carradine) and strike upon a plan to have Hawkins impersonate the jester, gain entry to the castle, and steal the key to a secret passage, allowing the Black Fox to attack it from within and overthrow the tyrant.  Unknown to Hawkins is that Giacomo is also an assassin hired by the evil Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) who opposes Roderick’s plan to consolidate power by marrying off his daughter Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) to his neighbour Sir Griswold of MacElwain (Robert Middleton).  Within the castle walls, The Court Jester becomes deliriously complicated.  King Roderick becomes enamoured with Jean.  Gwendolyn, who prefers true love over a marriage of convenience to Griswold, falls for Hawkins/Giacomo and her maid/witch Griselda (Mildred Natwick) hypnotizes him into believing at the snap of one’s fingers that he is a great hero (causing Hubert to frequently alternate personalities by accident).  Hawkins manages to inadvertently deceive Ravenhurst when the selfish lord mistakes a poisoning by Griselda as the work of the minstrel, but the illusion is short-lived and Ravenhurst recognizes that Hawkins is an impostor (and mistakenly believes he is the Black Fox), identifies Jean as a rebel, and discovers that the true royal heir is in the castle.  Ravenhurst engineers a duel between Hawkins and Griswold, but Hawkins manages to best Griswold thanks to his suit of armour being fortuitously magnetized by a lighting strike.  Meanwhile, Jean steals the key and the passage is opened, allowing the rebels to (eventually) enter the castle, defeat Roderick, and restore the infant to the throne with the allegiance of Griswold and his men.

A lot can be remarked upon The Court Jester.  We could note how adorable Glynis Johns is, how willful Angela Lansbury appears, or how Mildred Natwick manages another scene-stealing performance.  We could remark on how wonderful it is to see the 63-year-old Basil Rathbone display his expert swordsmanship (even if it’s true that Kaye’s movements were too fast for the fencer Rathbone or that the film’s fight choreographer stood in for Rathbone during the faster sections).  We could wonder at the film’s $3,000,000 budget, its actual cost of $4,000,000, and the failure of this film, the most expensive comedy made at the time of its release, to barely recover half its budget.  Ultimately though, The Court Jester is about Danny Kaye, a showpiece for his song-and-dance skills honed in vaudeville acts and burlesque revues.  Kaye delights with fleet-footed fencing and dance, careens between impressions, and engages in his trademark patter to create some of cinema’s most iconic routines and lines.  Kaye would be subject to fans’ versions of the classic “The vessel with the pestle …” exchange for the remainder of his career (even if Bob Hope did the tongue-twister gag in a more elaborate form years earlier).  It is Kaye’s performance of songs like “The Maladjusted Jester,” which highlights his nimble diction as he speeds through rhythmic recitations with entertaining ease, that is most characteristic of the actor, feats made possible by the words and music of his wife Sylvia Fine and of songwriter Sammy Cahn.  The whimsical delight of The Court Jester rests comfortably with the elvish Mr. Kaye.  Always ready with a glance, an expression, or a gesture, Kaye is a lovable goof, always able to elicit sympathy, sentimentality, or even complicity in his boyish mischief.  While a commercial failure, Kaye was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance of Hubert Hawkins and the film has since been recognized by the American Film Institute, preserved by the National Film Registry, and become beloved as a comedy classic.

Tom Whalen Whats Opera DocThe Court Jester should be an appealing film to Criterion, as the Collection has precious little musical comedy in its current incarnation.  Only the Lubitsch Musicals Eclipse set comes to mind as anything comparable.  And it’s rather surprising to note that of all of The Court Jester‘s principle cast, only Glynis Johns appears in a spine numbered film – 49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941).  As a currently out of print Paramount title, the film should be potentially available to the Collection.  Moreover, previous disc editions of The Court Jester have been quite slight on special features, providing Criterion with a real opportunity to improve on past versions and create a new edition that properly introduces to current film fans a comic genius at risk of being forgotten.  A Criterion edition of The Court Jester would do well with a cover treatment by illustrator and designer Tom Whalen.  Seeing Whalen’s poster of the Chuck Jones animated short What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), it’s clear that he has the modernist style, the graphic sensibility, the ’50s colour palette, and, most importantly, the appreciation of pure merriment necessary to do justice to Kaye’s merry, medieval masterpiece.

Credits:  With the upcoming release later this year of Ben Stiller’s remake of Danny Kaye’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (Norman Z. McLeod, 1947), perhaps there is an opportunity for Kaye’s rediscovery.  We’ve loaded this imagined Criterion disc with features celebrating Kaye as a comic and a humanitarian, two roles Kaye was always happy to mix.  All of the selected shorts, documentaries, features, and clips actually exist.  Comedian Bill Hader was selected as an essay contributor for his involvement in TCM’s Essentials Jr. series which Hader hosted and provided opening and closing comments.  The Court Jester was part of the 2013 program and Hader spoke with great fondness for the film.  Besides, who better to reflect on this comic gem than another comedian?

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4 thoughts on “The Court Jester (Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, 1955)

  1. Jonathan May 18, 2017 / 7:31 pm

    The begging question being, “If a real restoration was shown at the 2017 TCM Film Festival, should not a blur-ray release be hot on those heels?” Got it? Good!

    • spinenumbered May 18, 2017 / 7:54 pm

      I like the way you think Jonathan. Let’s hope that Jon Mulvaney thinks the same way!

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