Though massively talented and featured prominently in many films in the 1940s and ’50s – eventually even securing his own television show in the ’60s – for some reason Danny Kaye has not made much of a lasting impression in more recent decades. He’s been one of my favorite actors since middle school, after I briefly mistook him for Donald O’Connor when I caught a scene from A Song Is Born on TV.
Like O’Connor, he is an acrobatic dancer and effervescent comedian, though he became known for his tongue twisters and fast-paced singing (with songs written by his awesome wife, Sylvia Fine). I would wager that aside from his role in White Christmas (which is likely much better remembered for Bing Crosby), Kaye’s most known film is The Court Jester. You know the one: “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!” And it’s certainly one of his best.
A former circus entertainer existing some time in the Middle Ages, the kind-hearted Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) has joined up with the Black Fox, a Robin Hood-esque character whose forest-dwelling group protects the true heir to the throne (a baby with the royal birthmark), and fights to win him back the crown. When there is a raid on their camp, Hawkins and Maid Jean (Glynis Johns), one of the Fox’s commanders, escape with the child but wind up at the castle, where Hawkins impersonates the renowned court jester/secret assassin Giacomo so that he can get close to the king. Stumbling his way through a wealth of misunderstandings and mishaps, with the help of Maid Jean and a few other friends he manages to prove himself a true hero.
This movie has literally everything I could ever want. It’s got swashbuckling sword fights, hilarious jokes, catchy song-and-dance numbers, mistaken identities (actually one of my favorite things), gorgeous costumes (hey, Edith Head!), hypnosis, tights, and a fantastic cast. It even manages to slip a surprisingly tender and believable romance in there, with what feels like a slightly scandalous amount of heavy petting. The story is appropriately ridiculous, making room for Kaye’s numerous talents – including tongue-twisters and rhymes, multiple roles, goofy physical comedy, full-bodied caricature, and looking like a babe (yeah, I said it). Basil Rathbone is devious and marvelously facial-haired, while Angela Lansbury proves that no matter her actual age she will always seem really old (it’s almost impressive). And Glynis Johns is just… love.
Yes, some of the jokes feel dated, and Lansbury irks me in weird ways, but I think my only real disappointment is how Maid Jean turns out. At the beginning of the film she’s a badass rebel commander in pants, whom Hawkins addresses as “sir”, and he is genuinely taken aback whenever he sees her as “a woman”. Hey, atypical gender roles! Then she slips into some low-cut dresses to blend in at the castle and she loses some of her spark. She’s still resourceful and cunning, but less of a leader. And she’s always barefoot, for some reason. I still love Glynis in the role, it’s just too bad to see her start off as this very interesting, unexpected type of character and then morph into a more conventional one. Oh, well. The Court Jester is nevertheless quite excellent.
Alex Kittle is an art, movie, and comic geek with a penchant for nonsensical jokes and exaggerated claims. Her blog Film Forager explores movies of every genre, from weird high-concept sci-fi to classic brooding romance.