By James Turner
When The Court Jester was first released in 1955, whimsy was not necessarily a characteristic that the average cinemagoer would have associated closely with the medieval period. Starring the inimitable Danny Kaye, it is a musical comedy set in a trackless and timeless facsimile of the Middle Ages. At its core, The Court Jester is a joyous and artfully constructed farce which whips its viewers through its numerous set pieces and shenanigans at an exhilarating pace.
The true joy and genius of The Court Jester is its plotting and the manner in which misunderstandings steadily pile upon coincidences creating a frantic and heady mix for our principal players to whimsically cavort through. The setting is medieval England, the year indeterminate, and we have the fictitious King Roderick usurping the throne from the rightful heir – a baby boy identifiable only by an unusually alliterative birthmark, a purple pimpernel. This royal baby has been whisked to safety by the Black Fox, a Robin Hood-style rebel with a cause.
Danny Kaye stars with his usual relish and aplomb as Hubert Hawkins, the Black Fox’s bard who is at the start of the film pushing for a more active role in the band’s freedom fighting efforts. In classic style, he soon gets more than he bargains for when a raid by Roderick’s soldiers compels Hubert and the Black Fox’s lieutenant, the beautiful Maid Jean, played by Glynis Johns, to don disguises and smuggle out the young king. Taking refuge in audacity, they manage to escape the soldiers by dint of some pithy wordplay and spotless character work, before coming across the usurper’s new court jester, Giacomo, on the road.
After subduing the jester, it is decided, by Jean, that Hubert should take Giacomo’s identity and infiltrate the royal palace while she locates a new safe haven for the royal baby. Before departing, Jean reveals the existence of a rebel spy within the royal palace, entrusting Hubert with a whistled tune through which to identify himself. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to our heroes, a tangled weave of machinations are beginning to unfold within the royal palace.
A trio of the king’s advisors are urging him to marry his daughter, the newly elevated princess Gwendolyn, who I was startled to recognize as a young Angela Lansbury, to the ambiguously Scottish Sir Griswold of MacElwain, as a way of dealing with the Black Fox and establishing his reign. The willful Gwendolyn on the other hand longs for a romance in the classical chivalric model and has cajoled and bullied the court witch Griselda, played by Mildred Natwick, into prophesying one for her. With their relationship fraying and her life under immediate threat by the capriciously forceful princess, the desperate hedge witch identifies the imminently expected Giacomo as Gwendolyn’s long-expected great love.
At the same time, it is revealed that the true villain of the film, Roderick’s righthand and the man who murdered the true royal family, is Lord Ravenhurst. He views the king’s trio of advisors as a threat to his status and plans to have them killed at the hands of this Giacomo, who is really a master assassin masquerading as a jester. Ravenhurst is played with chilling poise by the exquisitely sinister swashbuckler veteran Basil Rathbone whose presence lends the film’s willfully farcical proceedings an air of authenticity and genuine threat.
Blissfully unaware of all of this, Hubert as Giacomo arrives at court and quickly ingratiates himself with King Roderick. He does this through an impromptu musical performance and the promise of the latest gossip from the Italian court, after all as Hubert says what better place to court Italians. Baked into this encounter is a pithy tongue twister, delivered at breakneck speed and with serene confidence by Danny Kaye, involving the Duke, Duchess, Doge and their various doings. Following Giacomo’s acceptance at court, Giacomo who is searching for his contact is left with the unfortunate impression that Ravenhurst, seeking to make contact with his assassin, is a fellow rebel.
Maid Jean is also at court having been waylaid shortly after parting from Hubert by another group of soldiers who were, for reasons probably best left unexamined, under orders to take beautiful women to the king’s court. There she must attempt to keep the royal baby safe, hidden in one of a series of identical wicker baskets, while also trying to assassinate Roderick. Griselda the witch’s surprising expertise at hypnosis comes to play a prominent role in this phase of the movie. Used exclusively on Hubert, it adds to the chaos and cascade of misunderstandings as he is no longer able to recall exactly what he has done or the often at cross purposes conversations he has had with other characters.
As the farce ripens and deepens, Hubert skillfully uses another musical number to hide the true king underneath the inquisitive usherer’s very nose. Meanwhile, Ravenhurst discovering the fate of the real Giacomo leaps to the conclusion that Hubert is really the Black Fox even as the hapless bard is arrested following the Princess’ unhelpful and unsought but heartfelt public declaration of love. Jean cannily staves off King Roderick’s advances by urging the king to throw caution to the wind and ignore the possibility that she may be a carrier of the horrible but fictitious disease named after her father which had caused him, her aunts, uncles and cousins to all die from in agony.
Ravenhurst convinces the king to knight “Giacomo” so that he may face the Princess’ newly arrived fiancé, Sir Griswold in single combat, his goal to allow the Black Fox to dispatch his rival before unmasking him and securing his position as Roderick’s number two. This tees off one of the movie’s most iconic and memorable scenes, Griselda and the Princess join forces to poison Sir Griswold as the two knights drink before the king to toast their impending fight to the death. Unfortunately they attempt to do so in a way uniquely confusing for Hubert who as we have learnt throughout the film can’t quite resist repeating and then mangling rhymes, placing a pellet of poison in a vessel marked with a pestle meaning that he should eschew this vessel with a pestle and drink out of the chalice from the palace instead, which we are reassured holds the brew that is true.
Hubert’s confusion is only heightened when at the last minute the chalice from the palace is broken and the pellet of poison is instead placed in the flaggon with a dragon meaning that the vessel with the pestle now holds the brew that is true. Hubert’s fumbling efforts to keep this straight by chanting the rhyme forewarns Sir Griswold only for him to become equally tongue-tied. Some more slapstick antics ensue only for the real Black Fox to swoop in and save the day, restoring the rightful king to the throne while Hubert bests Ravenhurst in a hilariously contrived and see-saw-like extended bout of swordplay.
In contrast to these iconic hijinks and the kinetic pacing of the plot with its whirl of misunderstanding and clashing agendas, the musical numbers despite their prominence in the film are not particularly memorable. There is nothing, for instance, quite comparable with Les Misérables’ ‘Master of the House’ which you find yourselves humming days later.
The slapstick is a little hit or miss as an engine for comedy. The final fight against the dastardly Lord Ravenhurst, in which Hubert is constantly triggering and releasing himself from the hypnotic suggestion he is a master swordsman and the conclusion of his earlier trial by combat are going to get a few guffaws and chuckles. On the other hand, some bits such as the magnetization of his armour via lightning strike prior to this fight with Sir Griswold, feel a little dated although no doubt the clever camera trickery which went into them would have been appreciated by audiences in 1956.
To be absolutely honest, which of course dear reader I will always be with you, The Court Jester is not replete with laugh-out-loud gags of naked hilarity. Dialogue, jokes and wordplay are all delivered at breakneck speed and somehow seem to slip by before the audience and characters alike can properly digest them. This, however, is a feature rather than a bug. The sheer chaos and farcical atmosphere of the film are in themselves a source of heady joy that sweeps the audience along in a cascade of pithy dialogue and increasingly bizarre or convoluted happenstances.
Much of the movie’s comedic sensibilities are borrowed from its star, Danny Kaye. While relatively obscure now, at the time of the film’s release, Kaye was a household name in America having starred in a raft of musicals, comedies and musical comedies over the proceeding decade. These films include such notable box office success as The Kid from Brooklyn (1946) about a Brooklyn-born milkman who turned boxing champion who fails to realize that his fights have been fixed, The Inspector General (1949), Knock on Wood (1954) and White Christmas (1955) where he shared top billing with Bing Crosby.
Kaye’s comedy is a curious blend of fast-paced and carefully constructed verbal avalanches and non-verbal physical comedy, mixed slapstick antics with exaggerated, even tortuous, facial reactions. An approach to comedy that he developed and refined during his extended bout performing in Asia to audiences with a limited grasp of English. In The Court Jester, as in all of his roles, Kaye plays Hubert with compellingly earnest sincerity and an accompanying bashfulness which verges on the outright apologetic. This combination endears the audience by inviting them in as knowing participants in the film’s whimsical atmosphere and set pieces.
This symbiosis between leading actor and material is clearly no coincide since the film was written and the project put together specifically with Danny Kaye in mind. It was produced, written and directed by long-standing collaborators Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. Frank and Panama’s partnership began when they met as students at the University of Chicago and earned their spurs in the entertainment industry by writing for Bob Hope and Groucho Marx which gave them valuable experience in modulating their work for the styles and idiosyncratic mannerisms of particular artists.
The duo successfully broke into Hollywood as screenwriters, their most notable work for this period was The Road to Utopia (1946) for which they won an Oscar for best screenplay. Starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, the musical comedy was the latest in a series of the highly popular ‘Road to…’ series. Prior to The Court Jester Frank and Panama had previously collaborated with Kaye to great box office and critical success with Knock on Wood and White Christmas. The music for The Court Jester was provided by veteran industry composers Walter Scharf and Vic Schoen.
Given the vagueness and Hollywood genericness of the setting, The Court Jester has little to say about the Middle Ages. But then it was never really meant to. What it is, is an utterly enchanting and charming riff on the conventions of Golden Age historical Swashbucklers that will never fail to amuse.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity.