THE COURT JESTER, Danny Kaye’s best and best-remembered comedy is regarded as a classic today, but for whatever reasons was a surprising flop in 1956. Though it made $6,300,000, posting 47th for the year, it was not ‘true brew’ against a princely $4,000,000 production tag, at the time the most ever lavished on a comedy. Even so, coming on the heels of Kayes smash White Christmas, the mild public response is puzzling, considering how very funny it is, start to finish. We jest you not: a ravishing Glynis Johns in VistaVision and Technicolor is enough to flutter this peasant’s heart.
In Olde England, usurper ‘King Roderick’ (Cecil Parker) fears the rebels led by ‘The Black Fox’. They intend to bring the true king, an infant, to take the rightful throne. Among the loyal rabble are amiable minstrel ‘Hubert Hawkins’ (Kaye) and bewitching ‘Maid Jean’ (Johns). Roderick’s right arm is deceptive scoundrel ‘Lord Ravenhurst’ (Basil Rathbone), plotting for more power, while Roderick’s princess daughter ‘Gwendolyn’ (Angela Lansbury) pines for a mate of her own choosing. Hubert impersonates ‘Giacomo’, a fabled jester, hoping he and the comely Jean can hold the fort (er, castle) until The Fox arrives with his men. Things look dire…
“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”
Written, produced and directed by Melvin Frank & Norman Panama, who’d scripted White Christmas (for Danny & Bing) as well as doing triple duty on another popular Kaye picture in ’54, Knock On Wood. They joust home runs in each category here; the witty screenplay a flagon full of complex comic situations, the direction keeping the pace at a knightly gallop, the production awash in sparkling color showcasing Edith Head’s flamboyant costume design and Hal Pereira’s art direction.
Delightfully clever song & dance numbers—penned by Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine (Kaye’s wife), scored by Vic Schoen and Walter Scharf, choreographed by James Starbuck—include “The Maladjusted Jester”, “Life Could Not Better Be” and “Outfox The Fix”. Kaye’s rapid-fire delivery of the tongue-twisting lyrics, gift for language-mimicking gibberish and nimble footwork are feats of dexterous skill and timing, and fulsome kudos must also go to Hermine’s Midgets and The Jackson Michigan Zouave Drill Team for adding wackiness to spare. Rathbone has fun sending up the many devious sword-wielding aristocrats he’d played for 20 years. Johns is simply heaven sent.
With Mildred Natwick (good witch ‘Griselda’), Robert Middleton (offended ‘Sir Griswold’), Herbert Rudley, Michael Pate (conspiring ‘Sir Locksley’), John Carradine, Alan Napier, Larry Pennell (debut). Harry Guardino is one of the foresters. 101 minutes.