|Court Jester, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 30 March 1999|
One of the greatest things about home video is that it has (too gradually) opened the history of movies to modern-day audiences. It's hard to remember that in the past, the only way to see older films was to try to catch them on in a commercial-riddled, late-night TV showing. Now you can rent or buy most major movies, at least since the 1940s or so, as well as minor movies from all around the world.
The trouble is that the older movies don't get the publicity push that newer ones do, so sometimes they can slip by you unawares. Here's an example: the best film of Danny Kaye, and one of the most entertaining movies of its type ever made, 'The Court Jester' is a classic. That's a term that gets overused, but is entirely appropriate here. Once seen, the movie is never forgotten; details of the busy plot fade from memory (even the title song admits "of plot we've got a lot"), and the big set pieces aren't as interesting as the smaller, funnier moments. But damned few people who've seen this film will ever forget Kaye singing "You'll Never Outfox the Fox," swordfighting with Basil Rathbone (the snap of a finger turns Kaye from a terrified novice into the greatest swordsman of all time), or "the vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison."
Kaye really deserves rediscovery. He was a minor Catskill comic who had done a few short subjects; he married Sylvia Fine, who took a firm hold on his career, and wrote his signature "triple-tongued" songs ripe with syllables and complicated names. He played a supporting role in Broadway's 'Lady in the Dark,' and was signed by Samuel Goldwyn, who starred him in 1944's 'Up in Arms,' carefully tailored to Kaye's talents. It was a smash hit, and Kaye continued as a major star.
Though he was not to everyone's taste (and probably still isn't), at his best he was almost magically entertaining. His strong features could be handsome or goofy; his lithe body could be graceful or gawky; he sang, he danced, he did comedy, almost always in pretty much the same persona: earnest but awkward young man thrust into a wild situation. He often played dual roles: the nebbish had to take over the life of a suave adventurer. His movie career dried up around 1958, but his activities with UNICEF and a popular TV series revived it. However, an older Danny Kaye was less funny than a younger one, and gradually his personal shallowness began to manifest itself. He had one more Broadway hit, but it was never filmed, and the rest of his career was largely confined to television.
But to see him at his best, you need only rent or buy this satisfying DVD of 'The Court Jester.' Directed, produced and written by the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank -- it's also their best film, together or apart -- it's fast-paced, funny and exciting; there's hardly a slow moment in its 101 minutes, quite long for 1956. Panama and Frank weren't cinematic directors -- there are virtually no closeups, and very little intercutting -- but here, at least, they were masters of timing and tone. Scenes are rehearsed to precisely the right point of speedy movement and delivery, and the cast could hardly be better.
It's also a lushly produced movie, shot in vivid color by Ray June, with excellent production design by Roland Anderson and Hal Pereira. Some very scenic sea cliff locations were chosen, and the castle and forest sets are vast and impressive. But lesser films looked this good; what makes 'The Court Jester' such a wonderful entertainment is what happens in those sets.
It's a spoof of the swashbucklers that were so popular from about 1947 to 1955, and is just as plotty as some of those were. In fact, one of the few weaknesses of 'The Court Jester' is that all these plot threads have to be wound up by the end, and some (like the fate of the Princess, who's bitchy but not a villain) are left dangling. King Roderick (Cecil Parker, excellent) has slaughtered the local royal family -- the setting is England, way back in the past sometime -- but a royal baby, with a distinguishing purple pimpernel birthmark on its butt, has been rescued by The Black Fox (Edward Ashley), a Robin Hood-like but patriotic bandit who lives in the forest with a group of followers. The Fox is determined to overthrow the usurper.
Entertainer Hawkins (Kaye) and dashing Captain Jean (Glynis Johns) are assigned the task of delivering the baby to safety at a convent. When they encounter Giacomo (John Carradine), who describes himself as king of jesters and jester to kings, they knock him out and Hawkins takes his place in order to infiltrate Roderick's palace. Unknown to Hawkins, Giacomo is also a skilled assassin, hired by the scheming Sir Ravenshurst (Basil Rathbone) to kill Roderick. There's also the Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), who is being forced into a politically-important marriage with the grim Griswold of the North (Robert Middleton), but who really wants to escape her father's domination. And there's the witch Griselda (Mildred Natwick), who is forced to do Gwendolyn's bidding. Then Jean is captured and taken to the palace, entrusting the baby to a loyalist who works there.
Everything then gets very complicated, but this was promised in the wonderful title song, "Life Could Not Better Be." As Kaye amusingly introduces the credits, he sings, "You'll see, as you suspect, Maidens fair in silks bedecked; Each tried and true effect For the umpteenth time we resurrect." And the movie follows this promise: Panama and Frank manage to walk a knife-edge of tone -- everything is slightly over the top. Lines like "Dire news sire!" are played just straight enough. Even the names are witty but understated: Ravenhurst, Grizelda, Griswold, Fergus the Ostler. Very few movies, ever, have played this game with such grace and style; spoofs these days are hamfisted and obvious.
There are only a few songs in the movie, most written by Sylvia Fine and Sammy Cahn, one ("The Maladjusted Jester") by her alone. They're full of funny word play that makes you want to listen to them over and over, as when Kaye sings "Those who try to tangle with my derring-do Wind up at the angle that herring do." The highlight, of course, comes in the big joust at the end, pitting Hawkins against Griswold. Griselda warns him that when they drink their toast before the match, "the vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison." Fortunately, though, "the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true." As Hawkins struggles to memorize this, she rushes back to say that one of the containers was broken; now the flagon with the dragon has the pellet with the poison.... This routine is in Chapters 27-28, featuring the joust.
For home theater buffs, there are some particular highlights. When Hawkins is dubbed a knight, the ceremony is speeded up, and he's rushed through it by precision-marching knights (actually American Legion Zouaves from Jackson, Michigan). The sound of their stamping feet, with befuddled Kaye hauled along, is a highlight of Chapter 25.
Midget friends of Hawkins stage an elaborate, comic assault on the castle in Chapter 30, and Kaye and Rathbone face off in an amazing duel sequence in Chapter 31.
A movie as good as this deserves a deluxe DVD, with background notes, interviews with the surviving performers (Lansbury and Johns are still working), comments on Kaye's career and so forth. But those would be frosting on a cake that probably really doesn't need them. 'The Court Jester' is a delight throughout.
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