Pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone can be beneficial. I have always said how much I hate musicals. The more I thought about it, I realized I not only liked some movies with numerous musical sequences (i.e. the Marx Brothers’ Universal films) but I even liked some musical numbers, such as “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe” from The Harvey Girls.
So I went into 1955’s The Court Jester fully knowing it was a musical comedy. What I didn’t expect was action, intrigue and wildly inventive wordplay. This is very smart movie full of energy and stylized chaos. Once again, like the Marx Brothers.
The gleeful subversion starts with the opening credits sequence. We start with Danny Kaye dressed in traditional jester garb. He is on a stage and it is obvious he is going to be addressing the audience directly. These are not promising signs. That said, once the credits start, the lyrics to the title song comment on the various job titles and names on the screen, as well as the general absurdity of its premise. Kaye even gets nudged around the screen and pushed flat to the ground by text as it flies in. This does a good job of establishing a tone of irreverence.
Once the main plot is underway, we quickly establish the various gears which will drive a complex plot that is deceptively simple in appearance. The Court Jester makes it effortless to follow the intertwined threads of a king worried that an heir to the throne has escaped the king’s campaign of infanticide (shades of Moses—odd for a such a light-hearted film), the rebellious Black Fox (shades of Robin Hood) who has an army of bandits to protect the prodigal infant, the theatrical clown (Kaye) who aspires to fight in the rebel arm, the female captain of the guard (Glynis Johns) of the Fox’s army going undercover to become the king’s right-hand wench (not my word choice, folks), the plotting of the king’s duplicitous henchman (Basil Rathbone, an expert swordsman in real life), and the attempts of the king’s daughter (Angela Lansbury!) to avoid an arranged marriage to Robert Middleton. Whew!
The main plotline kicks into gear when the Black Fox devises a plan which requires getting one of their people inside the castle in order to safely put the infant on the throne. Serendipitously, the rogue army encounters the new court jester en route to the castle. David Carradine makes a brief appearance as the jester, and I have to admit I was disappointed we never see the Wolfman clowning it up for the king.
Once Kaye is in place as the bogus jester, he is hypnotized by Lansbury’s handmaiden (or whatever they were called in ye olde make-believe medieval times). Her only objective was to make him fall in love with Lansbury but, unwittingly, she also fills him with unearned confidence that makes him believe he is an expert swordsman and general all-around badass. It only takes a snap of the fingers to toggle the transition from man to mouse and back again, leaving a dumbfounded Kaye in the middle of seducing the king’s daughter or embroiled in political subterfuge, but without any idea how he got there. It’s a great conceit, used frequently, and always to good effect.
One of the best recurring bits is some outlandishly convoluted wordplay. Let’s see if I can remember the most famous example correctly: “the poison pill in the vessel with the pestle, but the chalice from the palace is the brew that is true”. Whew, again! My tongue got tied just trying to remember that and then type it.
I am even less inclined to appreciate choreography than I am a musical number, but I was actually impressed by some of it here. To be honest, the choreography is largely atypical of what I have come to expect from musicals, and is instead more like fight choreography during musical numbers. One astonishing sequences happens early on where Kaye, disguised as the Black Fox, gradually replicates into doubles, triples and quadruples on himself. Then one of the four of him (wow—that was a strange thing to write) cuts the other three in half with one horizontal sweep of a sword, revealing three full height masked doppelgangers are actually six midgets. It is stunning effect, and even more impressive when one considers no CGI could have been used.
I have never seen Kaye in a movie before and I was greatly impressed. The rest of the cast is solid as well, though I don’t feel like singling out all of them here. One person I will call out in Angela Lansbury who, as the king’s daughter, is dependable as ever. But even though she was roughly the right age for this character, it is still always jarring to see her when she’s young. I suspect that, even if she never went on to star on Murder She Wrote in her most famous role, it still would be impossible to see her at an early age and not picture her as a senior citizen. Something always seemed grandmotherly about her. Heck, she was cast as Laurence Harvey’s mother in The Manchurian Candidate when she was only three years his elder, yet nobody blinked an eye.
I highly recommend The Court Jester and I know I will watch it again at some point. I doubt I can resist the allure of a movie with lines like “A jester unemployed is nobody’s fool”.
Dir: Melvin Frank and Norman Panama
Starring Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Angela Lansbury, Basil Rathbone
Watched on Paramount Presents blu-ray