Monday, November 2, 2015

Film Review: The Court Jester

"The Court Jester"  *** (out of ****)

Danny Kaye makes a fool out of himself as "The Court Jester" (1956).

It may be my own prejudice but Danny Kaye comedies have not seemed to age well. You really don't hear anyone talk about Danny Kaye anymore. You never hear any comedian say Danny Kaye was an inspiration to them. Honestly, I'm not quite sure how to describe his screen persona to someone not familiar with him.

Danny Kaye wasn't really a comedian. He would be better described as an "entertainer". He could sing a little, dance little and he had a light-hearted nature to him which lent itself to comedic material. Singing and dancing was his strong suite. He could double-talk (speak in gibberish) and sing songs at a rapid speed. Almost comparable to Charlie Chaplin he had a balletic movement in his gestures. If I had to guess I would say Mr. Kaye must have been an admirer of the Ritz Brothers in particular Harry Ritz. The Ritz Brothers, a comedy team in the 1930s, were also known for their singing and dancing to comedic material.

"The Court Jester" is usually considered to be one of the better movies Mr. Kaye starred in and was listed on the American Film Institute's (AFI) list of the 100 best comedies. It is a kind of Robin Hood story mixed with religious undertones of a baby that is a royal heir and uncrowned king.

Danny Kaye stars as Hubert Hawkins, a one time carnival performer, that has joined forces with the Black Fox (Edward Ashley), a Robin Hood type who lives in the forest with his own merry men and claims to fight for justice. The Black Fox and his followers believe King Roderick (Cecil Parker) is not the rightful heir to the thrown. King Roderick is believed to have ordered the murder of all lineage to the thrown, except for an infant, who the Black Fox and his followers protect.

Hubert is not much of a fighter. The Black Fox keeps him around to entertain the men. But Hubert dreams of being a hero and fighting side by side with the Black Fox against King Roderick and his men. Hubert would also like to impress Jean (Glynis Johns), a captain among the group. In order to win Jean's heart Hubert believes he must show his bravery.

The Hubert character is your standard comedic character you may find Bob Hope or Woody Allen play. A well-meaning, timid, socially awkward man that secretly loves the pretty girl but she doesn't notice him. He lacks bravery but knows in order the win the hand of the pretty girl he must "prove" himself as masculine.

That opportunity will present itself when Hubert must disguise himself as a Court Jester in order to get close to King Roderick so the Black Fox and his men may attack the King by entering the caste through a secret passage.

This is a theme Danny Kaye comedies often deal with, mistaken identity. You will notice it in "The Inspector General" (1949), "Wonder Man" (1945), where he plays duel roles as twin brothers. You know the routine, one was good and the other was bad, and "On the Double" (1961).

There is a lot going on plot-wise in the movie. Hubert finds himself as part of a plot to assassinate the King, as Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) wants to overthrow the King and believes Hubert is an assassin he has hired. Meanwhile the King's daughter, Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) believes Hubert is the great love her maid (Mildred Natwick), who is also a witch, has spoken to her of. In order to protect her life the maid hypnotizes Hubert into believing he is in love with Gwendolyn.

There are plenty of moments when "The Court Jester" resembles a bedroom farce with characters running in and out of bedrooms, planning secret get-a-ways. Unfortunately there is also a lot of singing and dancing which is not needed and interrupts the flow of the movie. At one hour and 41 minutes "The Court Jester" feels long.

For whatever reason several comedians have starred in period pieces. The appeal was supposed to be the contrast of the "modern" comedian in a historical setting which allows for anachronistic humor. This may also allow for satirical social observations. "The Court Jester" reminds me of a Bob Hope comedy like "Casanova's Big Night" (1954). This could be explained by the fact "The Court Jester" was co-written and co-directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. Together the two men wrote several Bob Hope comedies such as "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946) and "Road to Utopia" (1945) as well as other Danny Kaye comedies like "Knock on Wood" (1954).

However one must admit "The Court Jester" does have some entertaining moments which allow Mr. Kaye to shine in certain sequences. While I don't care for a large majority of the songs Mr. Kaye performs an exuberant number called "The Maladjuster Jester" but it is the verbal gags that I enjoy the most. The most famous may be the "Pellet with the Poison" routine as Hubert tries to remember which cup has poison in it so he doesn't drink it.

It is not only Mr. Kaye though that is fun to watch. The movie has a fairly good cast. The appearance of Basil Rathbone should be especially noted. Since elements of the movie do resemble the Robin Hood legend, the casting of Mr. Rathbone serves almost as an "in joke". Basil Rathbone was also in "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938) which starred Errol Flynn in the title role. Mr. Rathbone played a similar role in that movie as the right hand man of Prince John. "The Court Jester" also has fencing scenes between Basil Rathbone and Danny Kaye. Mr. Rathbone was an accomplished fencer in real life. You can also see Mr. Rathbone show off his fencing skills in "The Mark of Zorro" (1940).

If you are not familiar with Danny Kaye "The Court Jester" may serve as a good introduction into what made him popular at one time. The movie is funny and does have some very good verbal gags and physical comedy sequences which make up for the so-so songs. Although I feel the movie goes on a bit too long I'd still recommend seeing "The Court Jester".