Friday, February 15, 2019

Is "The Court Jester" the Best Classic Movie Comedy?

I recently watched The Court Jester (1955) for perhaps the tenth time--and laughed just as much as the first time. I realize comedy is very subjective as some folks prefer broad laughs and others opt for dark humor. But I'm hard pressed to think of a classic film comedy that's as nearly perfect as The Court Jester.

For the uninitiated, it's a medieval tale in which the Black Fox (a sort of Robin Hood) plots to restore the rightful heir to the throne: a royal baby with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his posterior. Danny Kaye plays Hawkins, a minor member of the Black Fox's gang, who is given the mission of smuggling the baby into the palace and getting the key to a secret passageway to the Black Fox. Of course, Hawkins is not entrusted with this mission alone; he is accompanied by Jean (Glynis Johns), one of the Black Fox's senior officers.

En route to the palace, Hawkins and Jean encounter the new royal jester Giacomo ("King of jesters and jester of kings"). Learning that no one in the king's court has ever seen Giacomo, they hatch a quick scheme that has Hawkins assuming the identity of the jester.

Danny Kaye and Basil Rathbone: "Get it? Got it. Good!"
They don't know, of course, that the villainous Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) has hired Giacomo to assassinate three of the king's advisors. Nor could they anticipate that Princess Gwendolyn's lady-in-waiting, Griselda, has promised that a handsome stranger will rescue the princess from an undesirable marriage. To ensure that Hawkins/Giacomo meets the princess's expectations, Griselda (Mildred Natwick) hypnotizes him into thinking he's the medieval version of Rudolph Valentino.

Cecil Parker and Angela Lansbury.
Written and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, The Court Jester is a textbook example of how to tailor a film to fit its star's skills. Danny Kaye's physicality, quick delivery of dialogue, and exaggerated facial expressions are masterfully exploited in at least five classic comic routines. The most famous, of course, is the "Chalice from the Palace", but almost equally as funny are: Hawkins portraying an old man who is hard of hearing; the romancing of Princess Gwendolyn as Hawkins snaps in and out of his hypnotic trance; Hawkins' "get it, got it, good" exchanges with Ravenhurst, and the climatic sword fight. Simply put, it's the best part ever for the multi-talented Kaye.

Glynis Johns as Jean.
When I think of movies in which every role is ideally cast, three films come to mind: The Wizard of Oz, The Adventures of Robin Hood...and The Court Jester. It should come as no surprise that marvelous actors such as Lansbury, Rathbone, Natwick, and Johns possess impeccable comic timing. But it's also apparent that care was put into casting even the smaller parts. Cecil Parker is a delight as the king whose principal focus is on selecting wenches for a feast. Even Robert Middleton, who played his share of villains, generates laughs as Sir Griswold as he tries to remember which goblet contains the pellet with the poison.

Danny Kaye and Mildred Natwick.
Naturally, even the best comedians can falter without a funny script, so it's fortunate that The Court Jester was written (and directed) by Frank and Panama. Their greatest accomplishment is with how they incorporate the aforementioned laugh-out-loud gags into a carefully crafted spoof of costume adventures such as Errol Flynn's Robin Hood. The two writers, who met while students at the University of Chicago, worked together for three decades and penned the scripts for films such as Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, The Road to Utopia (the finest Road picture), and White Christmas (Danny Kaye's second-best film).

It's not all perfect. The opening musical number, while clever and lively, goes on too long. (Still, it serves the purpose of introducing Hawkins' acrobatic friends, which become important later.) Once Hawkins assumes the guise of Giacomo, The Court Jester rolls along at a frolicking pace. From that point on, it may produce the most laughs per minute of any comedy (only A Shot in the Dark comes close). And I must say that my wife and I have never shown The Court Jester to anyone who didn't have a grand time.

So is it the best classic movie comedy? I honestly can't think of a better one, so I'll say yes! Get it? Got it. Good!


This review is part of the Adoring Angela Lansbury Blogathon hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews.

Below is the scene where a hypnotized Hawkins is sent to woo Princess Gwendolyn. It's the fourth most-watched clip (out of over 100) on the Cafe's YouTube channel.

14 comments:

  1. It was also the most expensive. The opening number was to take place in a circus. Paramount nixed it...It still lost money.

    The only onscreen duel that Rathbone required a double.'Course it was fifteen years after Robin Hood.

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  2. Best classic movie comedy? It is a good movie but personally I think there is better. Arsenic And Old Lace comes to mind for me. Great article though!

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  3. I can't argue with you on this one. I want to, due to a perversion in my nature, but I can't. Of course, it all depends on the viewer's mood. If you not in the mood for the display of such creativity and talent then it's just not for you.

    PS: Yeah. The opening number does go on too long.

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  4. I'm sure I remember this film from way back, but sounds like lots of fun so definitely one to check out. Thanks for joining my blogathon with this lovely post.

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  5. Love, love, love “The Court Jester”! Impeccable cast, phenomenal performances, delightful story and wonderful laughter! Excellent review, Rick!

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  6. Always a favourite , try it on any young kids in your circle they will love it. My favourite scene though is always the point where Hawkins is knighted. Yeah verily yeah!

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    1. I also love the scene where he has to wrestle a "wild boar."

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  7. Another perfectly cast comedy? I vote for TOOTSIE. Though you know that I adore this film, too.

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    1. Yes, it has a fine cast, too, especially Teri Garr.

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  8. The Court Jester has a special place in my heart (though I confess musical comedies are not my favorite film genre) because it was the first film that made me aware that Lansbury had been a classic film actress. Up until that time I only knew her from Murder, She Wrote (I was a child of the 80's so I saw the original shows, not reruns). I was like, "wait, isn't that Jessica Fletcher???" :-). Her performance here impressed me as both comical and sultry and I started looking at other films she had done and that made me a fan of hers.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog
    https://thedreambookblog.wordpress.com

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  9. Absolutely one of the funniest films ever made, and a high point in Danny Kaye's wonderful career. As you point out, this is one of those movies that you can show to pretty much anyone, and they'll have a grand time!

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  10. One of the funniest movies I ever saw was MRS. DOUBTFIRE with ROBIN WILLIAMS. Robin was great at showing not only a funny side in movies but also a sensitive side in the same movie. There was JACK and PATCH ADAMS. Ones that weren't comedies were AWAKENINGS and GOOD WILL HUNTING, which he won the OSCAR for supporting actor.

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  11. My post has been removed about Teri Garr and Jessica Lange being Oscar nominated for Tootsie. There wasn't anything wrong with what I said. A lot of people already know this but everyone cant know it and some people might have forgot.

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  12. I have kind of an aversion to Danny Kaye, so I haven't really given this film a real chance. You've persuaded me to set my aversion aside and watch it with an open mind.

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