Silver Screen Standards: The Court Jester (1955)
I turn to colorful, upbeat musicals whenever I feel sick or depressed, especially in the winter, when I most need a bright escape from dark, dreary days stuck indoors. Recently I found myself revisiting one of my very favorite examples of the genre, the 1955 medieval comedy, The Court Jester, starring Danny Kaye as a carnival entertainer turned resistance fighter against a murderous, usurping king. This silly, charming picture is a star-studded confection featuring one of Kaye’s most memorable performances, and it’s a perfect choice for family viewing with its lively musical numbers and infectiously quotable lines.
Written and directed by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, The Court Jester packs in a mind-boggling number of memorable stars, which makes it required viewing for anybody interested in classic movies. We get Kaye, of course, topping the bill, but his two leading ladies are Glynis Johns and Angela Lansbury – a hard pair to choose between, indeed! Basil Rathbone heads up the villains’ side as the scheming Sir Ravenhurst, a role that echoes his performance as Sir Guy in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Other instantly recognizable stars include Mildred Natwick as the mesmerist lady in waiting Griselda and John Carradine in a brief but notable appearance as the real Giacomo. Michael Pate, Alan Napier, Cecil Parker, Robert Middleton, Herbert Rudley, and Edward Ashley fill out the cast, with Middleton particularly imposing as the ursine Sir Griswold. Finally, the ensemble group billed as “Hermine’s Midgets” makes its only screen appearance as the protagonist’s loyal carnival friends.
The story draws heavily from familiar swashbucklers, a relationship underlined by Basil Rathbone’s presence in the picture. Kaye’s character, Hubert Hawkins, has joined up with a band of fighters who live in the forest under the leadership of the Black Fox (Edward Ashley), a hero of the Robin Hood stamp whose name and mask also recall Zorro. The rightful heir to the throne is a baby with a distinctive purple pimpernel birthmark on his posterior, a nod to the Scarlet Pimpernel and his calling card. Instead of Robin Hood’s archery contest, Hawkins enters a more traditional tournament against Sir Griswold, creating a comical version of the climactic tournament fought by Ivanhoe. Rathbone, of course, had played the heavy in both The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro (1940), which makes Hawkins’ final duel with Sir Ravenhurst as inevitable as it is fun to watch.
In this adventure, Hawkins is an unlikely hero, having spent most of his time with the outlaws entertaining the men and taking care of the royal infant. He gets a chance to prove himself when he and Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) encounter a famous jester, Giacomo (John Carradine), en route to the king’s palace. Hawkins impersonates Giacomo and appears at court, not knowing that Sir Ravenhurst has actually summoned Giacomo because the jester is also a skilled assassin. Hawkins quickly gets out of his depth, especially when Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) decides to be in love with him and orders her hypnotist attendant to ensure his success. Hawkins ends up having to fight a rival knight for Gwendolyn’s hand while trying to save the royal baby and restore order to the kingdom, and along the way, he manages to perform a number of songs and sight gags that keep the peril from being taken too seriously.
If the wacky action, lively songs, and memorable cast aren’t enough, The Court Jester also boasts some ridiculously repeatable dialogue that even the youngest classic movie fans can appreciate, whether it’s the often used “Get it? Got it. Good” exchange or the deliriously silly tongue twister about the vessel with the pestle. Be warned, though, that showing this movie to kids ensures that you will hear these lines for weeks, if not years, afterward. The songs also include several bits that might well tickle young funny bones, especially the “Maladjusted Jester” number that Kaye performs fairly late in the film.
If your family is clamoring for more of Danny Kaye after the mandatory December viewings of White Christmas (1954), The Court Jester is a perfect post-holiday follow-up. For more of Kaye’s work with Frank and Panama, try Knock on Wood (1954); you’ll also find Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen (1952) and Merry Andrew (1958). Kids will most likely recognize Glynis Johns from the original Mary Poppins (1964), but track down the charming mermaid comedy Miranda (1948) if you want to see her as a comedic leading lady in her prime; the sequel, Mad About Men (1954), is also worthwhile. While you’re at it, show the family Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) to get another taste of the musical and comedic genius of the legendary Angela Lansbury, who most recently made a cameo appearance as the balloon lady at the end of the 2018 film, Mary Poppins Returns.
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.