The Court Jester (Paramount 1956)

 


It's medieval England, and the usurper Roderick sits on the throne. Only one member of the royal family survives; a baby, who bears the royal birthmark. The child is in the custody of the outlawed rebel, the Black Fox. It is here that The Court Jester begins.

Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a mousy fellow who joins the Black Fox's band. He is assigned to tend the infant. One of his duties appears to be exposing the royal backside so that the birthmark may be seen. Hawkins would rather bear arms against Roderick, be a hero, and thus impress the Black Fox's daughter, Jean (Glynis Johns), whom Hawkins knows as "Captain". The two journey to take the child into hiding. Meanwhile, Jean has been hatching a plot to infiltrate the castle and overthrow the usurper. The only thing missing is a way to get in, and that materializes with the appearance of Giacomo, King of Jesters and Jester of Kings (John Carradine), recently from the Italian court ("What better place to court Italians?"). Waylaying Giacomo, Hawkins assumes the role, and enters the palace, touching off a comedy of errors.

Roderick's daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) is to marry Sir Griswold ("the grim and gruesome grisly Griswold"), but sees a better heart's match in Hawkins/Giacomo. Thanks to misread signals, Hawkins thinks that Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) is an agent of the Black Fox. Ravenhurst thinks Hawkins is Giacomo, not only a jester but also a highly skilled assassin, hired by Ravenhurst to eliminate his political rivals. Hawkins and Ravenhurst manage to converse throughout the film without catching on to each other.

Hawkins: When do we start?
Ravenhurst: Tonight.
Hawkins: Good. I'd like to get in, get on with it, get it over with, and get out. Get it?
Ravenhurst: Got it.
Hawkins: Good.

Kaye was good at wordplay, and the scriptwriters have showcased his skill. There are several segments where Kaye is able to indulge in the get it/got it/good exchange. Even better is hearing Kaye trying to avoid poisoning by remembering the instructions "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true." And when the flagon with the dragon enters the equation, oh my! There is also an abundance of physical comedy, another Kaye forte. Kaye's face is expressive and mobile. That talent is clearest in the scenes in which an ensorceled Hawkins flip-flops between cowardly and courageous at the literal snap of fingers.

Johns is comical in an understated fashion. She plays Jean as both demure, and chess-master brilliant. The scene where she fends off Roderick's advances ("Don't worry. They say it isn't catching. Kiss me, sire!") is a favorite of mine. Lansbury's Gwendolyn comes off rather wooden. I'm not sure how much of that is the acting; the script doesn't have much for her.

Rathbone often makes a terrific villain (Robin Hood, Captain Blood), and he's perfect here as the loathsome Ravenhurst. There's something about his expression that makes one uneasy. He also provides a good foil for Kaye's comic lines with his deadpan delivery.

The film has plenty of singing and dancing, as it is a musical comedy. There's also a great fencing scene -- Rathbone was an accomplished fencer, and Kaye learned (well) for this film.

I mentioned that The Court Jester is a comedy, so I won't be spoiling anything by saying that it does, of course, have a happy ending. As Kaye sings, "What starts like a scary tale . . . ends like a fairy tale . . . and life couldn't possibly better be!"


[Tim Hoke]

A complete transript of *The Court Jester* can be found here .