Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Favorite Film: THE COURT JESTER (1955) starring Danny Kaye and Glynis Johns

It's time for another dose of the inimitable Danny Kaye. I've already talked about Walter Mitty and now it's THE COURT JESTER'S turn. What a delightful movie. What a funny movie. What a terrific cast! Listen to this: Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, Mildred Natwick, Cecil Parker and John Carradine!

Remember this? ...the vessel with the pestle is the brew that is true...! I smile just thinking about the hilarious scene in which Mildred Natwick playing Griselda, a kind of witch, tries to explain to Danny Kaye playing Hubert Hawkins (mistaken for an assassin), which of the cups at the banquet holds the poison. It's all in rhyme and Hawkins is as confused as we are. Danny Kaye is a joy to watch in this as well as the other scenes in which he must assume the guise of a super confident, suave and practised assassin. SO funny. (As I've said a million times before: nobody does 'suave' like Danny Kaye.)

Back to the beginning: Hubert Hawkins is a carnival performer with a travelling band of acrobats and jugglers who are really part of a group of revolutionaries (of the Robin Hood variety) hanging out in the forest. They are led by a stalwart type known as The Black Arrow. Their aim is to overthrow the corrupt King Roderick I (Cecil Parker), by putting the rightful king - who happens to be an infant - on the throne.

To that end, Hawkins travels - disguised as Giacomo, a Court Jester (King of Jesters and Jester of Kings) - to the King's castle with Maid Jean (Glynis Johns), on an errand to pick up the baby (with the mark of the Purple Pimpernel) who is being hidden by loyalists within the castle's walls. On the short trip, Jean and Hawkins grow closer, though she is leery of his bumbling. Of course, this being a Danny Kaye film, nothing goes right in this great script written by the fabulous Norman Panama and Melvin Frank who also directed. The tongue-trippingly, saucy songs are once again written by Danny Kaye's wife, Sylvia Fine, and once again they require the dexterity of a genius to perform. Luckily, Kaye is one.

Once Hawkins and Maid Jean make their way by wagon into the grounds of the castle, Hawkins is mistaken not only for the Court Jester who is to perform at the night's banquet but also for a hired assassin in the employ of Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). The assassin's job is to kill three knights who stand in the way of Rathbone's plans.

The plot is further complicated when the Princess Gwendolyn (the King's daughter, played by Angela Lansbury) falls for Hawkins almost immediately despite the fact that she is already betrothed to the odious Sir Griswold (Robert Middleton). In the meantime, her maid Griselda (Mildred Natwick) who is also a part time witch and hypnotist, overhears Ravenhurst and his two cohorts John Carradine and Michael Pate conspiring to use the Court Jester/Assassin to further their ends. Griselda then hypnotizes Hawkins into believing he is the assassin once she snaps her fingers. Unfortunately the same thing happens when anyone snaps their fingers. One snap: he's the assassin. Two snap: he's the timid Hawkins once again.

The results, especially when Hawkins has to meet with the co-conspirators after just having had an assignation with the Princess is laugh-out-loud funny and so beautifully done by Danny Kaye. He is brilliant in these scenes. Snapping fingers have never been responsible for so much confusion.

"Get it?"

"Got it."


Okay, so the princess thinks she's eloping with Hawkins at midnight and the evil Ravenhurst thinks the three knights will be dead at the stroke of midnight and Hawkins is unaware of any of this since it all occurred while he was under hypnosis.

But later that night, Ravenhurst is convinced Hawkins is an assassin par excellence when the poison brews find their marks (thanks to Griselda) despite the Court Jester's ineptitude.

As part of his 'jesting' duties, Hawkins must sing a song for the King and his court. He performs a song about his 'work' as a jester, the last line of which is unforgettable: "...for a jester without employment is NOBODY'S FOOL...!!!" Sylvia Fine's lyrics have never been funnier or wittier.

In the meantime, Sir Griswold, the Princess's original betrothed, can't challenge Hawkins to a duel over the Princess' hand because Hawkins is a commoner. So the Princess cajoles the King into inducting Hawkins into the knighthood in one of the funniest and fastest knight rituals you will ever see. Caught up in the hands of a band of syncronized marching knights Hawkins is passed around like a bag of potatoes until he is finally made a gentleman and knight and must fight Sir Griswold to the death on the morrow.

Also in the meantime, The Black Arrow and his band of merry men plan to attack the castle once the baby is smuggled out.

Lots of hoopla in the end, mix-ups, romance (with Glynis Johns of course) and Hawkins proves the hero, The Black Arrow wins the day, the King is knocked from the throne and all's well that ends well.

If you're not familiar with this film or with Danny Kaye, I say: make yourself familiar asap. THE COURT JESTER is Danny Kaye at his riotous best.


  1. I love this film and Danny Kaye! White Christmas with Danny and Bing Crosby is my favorite Christmas movie.

  2. I never particularly cared for Danny Kaye because I've heard too many stories about what a dink he could be...but I cannot deny my love for this film. It is literally one of the most perfect film comedies ever made, and I don't hyperbolize lightly.

  3. Danny kaye is a hoot.
    That was a fun film..

  4. Bev: This one and WALTER MITTY are my two favorite Danny Kaye films. Love 'em!!

  5. Ivan: It's so hard when an actor we love is not, perhaps, the person we imagine him to be in 'real' life. I so dislike Bing Crosby for being such a rotten father and a hypocrite - so much so that I can't watch his films at all any more.

    But, generally, I just try to compartmentalize the 'real' and the 'make-believe'. It's not easy sometimes.

    But this is such a great film!! My favorite is always the scenes in the turrets when he swings down the side of the castle and keeps popping in and out of character. :)

  6. Yvonne: Yes, a wonderful movie. It should be seen by anyone who loves to laugh. HA!

  7. I love Danny Kaye and his movies. I haven't seen them though in decades. My family watched his movies and adored his.

    You've gotten me interested in reseeing them.

    That is a good thing. I wonder what I'll think now. He was great (as opposed to Bing Crosby and many of his buddies, who were not whom they appeared to be.)

  8. Kathy: I wish that the WALTER MITTY movie were available on Netflix, but it isn't. Go figure.
    THE COURT JESTER is, though. I think I'm going to have to buy the Walter Mitty dvd. It's the ony way.

    I'm glad you're interested in seeing the films again, Kathy. :)

  9. I love this movie! One of my favorites too, I haven't seen it in years! Mildred Natwick and Angela Lansbury are so funny in it too! The whole "Get it, Got it, Good" was priceless - my brother and I used to mimic it when we were kids. It was one of our favorite lines! I too love Walter Mitty, even more than this one. Fine's lyrics are amazing and he rattles them off flawlessly!

  10. Julie: I sometimes use the 'get it, got it, good' line but people look at me as if I'm crazy. I just assume everyone knows it. HA!

    Netflix has THE COURT JESTER on demand but not WALTER MITTY - what's up with that?

    Danny Kaye in his prime was just fabulous, no getting around it. A great script didn't hurt either. :-)

  11. I loved The Court Jester and I just wanted to add how much I love the beautiful lullaby that Danny Kaye sings to the infant.

  12. Oh Peter, I'd forgotten about that scene. Yes, Danny Kaye could do anything and everything and he made it all work. :)

  13. "Is it the flagon with the dragon or the vessel with the pestle?" Something like that, right? Mildred Natwick and Danny Kaye - excellent moment in this movie. Rivals "Who's on First?" with Abbot & Costello for sheer wizardry with words.

    This and Hans Christian Anderson were two of my favorite Danny Kaye films a long tiem ago. He was one of my idols when I was much younger. I wanted to be a comic actor good at physical comedy like him and Dick Van Dyke. I'll have to watch this one again very soon.

  14. John: Yes - "the vessel with the pestle is the brew that is true". HA! So funny. I'm still amazed at how these actors were able to do this virtuoso routine without either laughing or screwing it up. I wonder how many 'takes' it took.

    My other Danny Kaye favorite is the Walter Mitty film. I LOVE that, primarily, I suppose, because it's also a funny mystery.

  15. I know I'm late to the party on this, but I just found this blog through Patti Abbott's Pattinase blog and I'm reading back through previous posts. My husband has always loved this movie and he introduced it to our children who are now also huge fans. They enjoyed it so much, they asked for a DVD for Christmas (which I could through Movies Unlimited). I also found, at a used book sale, a 1966 book of children's legends and fairy tales from around the world, edited by Danny Kaye when he was a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador. He had quite a varied career. I remember one of his last roles was a dramatic one. He played a concentration camp survivor who protested a planned march by neo-Nazis/KKK through Skokie, Ill. (based on a true case).

  16. Deb: Anytime is a good time. I'm just glad you found my blog. :-) We're big Danny Kaye fans around here. I wrote about his Walter Mitty movie as well - another of my favorites - a few weeks ago.

    He was just such a talented actor. I never did see his dramatic role in the Skokie show - but I heard about it at the time. It got good press.

    I guess I much prefer to remember him in the 'happy' movies.

    Thanks Deb, for dropping by.

  17. Yvette, this was the first film my family owned on videotape and my sons and I still quote large swatches of it to each other upon the least provocation. Maybe our favorite was Ravenhurst's comment, "The Black Fox--and still playing the fool." Also Ravenhurst's "Hahaha, save your jests for the king." There's a string of adjectives we loved but could never get right--If you know them off the top of your head, I'd appreciate knowing them. Griselda has just poisoned Ravenhurst's three opponents. He thinks the jester/assassin has done it and has a stronger word of praise as each nobleman keels over. Do you know the film well enough to recite them?

  18. Robin: I remember the scene but can't quote the words directly. I think it was something like, "Brilliant. Magnificent. Stupendous." Something along those lines. Can't remember. I'll have to watch the film again just to see. Gives me an excuse. Ha!

    I still love: Get it. Got it. Good. And "A jester without employment is nobody's fool." This is such a fun film.

  19. dear Yvette,
    i have been searching for the title of a French 70s film, involving a a jester who for his amorous folie ends up bricked into the wall of a chateau, then tied by the ankles and dragged off by a freed horse through the forests, happy i would be to know the title,

  20. John, I'm at a loss. I don't know the answer to your question. I've never seen this film of yours. Though I must say, it appears to have a smasheroo of an ending.

    Sorry I couldn't be of any help.


Your comment will appear after I take a look.