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The Court Jester

USA 1955
produced by
Melvin Frank, Norman Panama, Danny Kaye (executive), Sylvia Fine (executive) for Dena Enterprises, Paramount
directed by Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
starring Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker, Mildred Natwick, Robert Middleton, Michael Pate, Herbert Rudley, Noel Drayton, John Carradine, Edward Ashley, Alan Napier, Lewis Martin, Patrick Aherne, Richard Kean, Hermine's Midgets, the Jackson Michigan Zouave Drill Team
written by Norman Panama, Melvin Frank, music by Vic Schoen, songs by Sammy Cahn, Sylvia Fine

review by
Mike Haberfelner

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England, the Middle Ages: Hawkins (Danny Kaye) is a former performer and present member of the Black Fox's (Edward Ashley) gang of rebels opposing King Roderick (Cecil Parker) - but unfortunately he is neither a good fighter nor too brave to be of too much use, so his services are mainly needed when he has to smuggle the rightful heir to the throne, a toddler with a birthmark on his bottom, from one place to the next, something that requires only minimal fighting but much acting ...

Hawkins is in love with Jean (Glynis Johns), a fierce female fighter, and she loves him back, but claims she cannot be with him until the toddler has retaken the throne. Since the two of them don't want to wait too long though, they make up a plan according to which Hawkins enters the King's court as the King's new Jester Giacomo - they have captured the real Giacomo (John Carradine) rather accidently - and get some keys from the king to open a secret passage to his castle from the inside. a simple enough plan it seems, since the Black Fox already has a spy in the castle, but things are soon complicated when Hawkins is led to believe that Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) is on the Fox's side when actually he is scheming to usurp the throne himself and has hired the real Giacomo not so much as a Jester but also as an assassin. Then there's the king's daughter Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), who has been promised to Sir Griswold (Robert Middleton), but who has fallen in love with the Jester, and there's Gwendolyn's clairvoyant Griselda (Mildred Natwick), who hypnotizes Hawkins into being a dashing hero, just to keep him with Gwendolyne (on which Griselda's life depends), but allof Hawkins' courage can be wiped out by the snap of a finger. As if that wasn't bad enough, Jean is brought to the castle as well, to be made the king's new consort, and somehow the baby and rightful heir to the throne changes hands multiple times.

Everything leads to a duel to the death between Hawkins and Griswold, which Hawkins wins by mistake, but then he's tried for being the Black Fox (which he isn't of course) and convicted even, upon which a gang of midgets from his time with the theatre attack the court from within and manage to turn things to Hawkins' favour, and when the Black Fox and his men finally arrive, the fight is already half done - but in the finale, Hawkins engages in a swordfight to the death with Ravenhurst, in and out of Griselda's hypnotic spell ... but of course, in the end it all ends happily ...

 

On the surface, The Court Jester is pretty much like its star Danny Kaye, likeable but (a bit too) harmless, which is why it's probably the perfect vehicle for him. Beneath the pure surface though, The Court Jester is quite fascinating for its narrative mechanics, because other than most American comedies it does not relie on a straight-forward story that moves from point A to point B to point C, but is a cleverly convoluted plot that falls into many seemingly unrelated subplots that all come to one and the same culmination in the finale and that are not at some point abandoned for a few cheap jokes (as happens in many comedies).

Add to this a bit of well-executed slapstick, a few funny sight-gags, some quotable dialogue and a splendid villainous performance by Basil Rathbone, and you are left with a film that maybe falls a few inches short of being a comic masterpiece, but it's a very enjoyable movie nevertheless.

 

review © by Mike Haberfelner

 

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