In my earliest memories of this film — which extend about as far back into the recesses of early childhood as any non-Disney production in existence — Hubert Hawkins is the Black Fox. I can vaguely recollect a time when an important plot strand involving the real Black Fox’s absence just didn’t register with me. At the very least, this means that a character with only a few minutes of screen time failed to leave an impression. But there’s more to it than that. The Court Jester is the story of a milquetoast thrust into situations where heroism is required. A young boy is apt to overlook that simple fact in favor of a world where the hero is simply the right man for the job. Some of the very first hints of critical movie-watching in my life came when I first grasped the relationship between Hawkins and the Robin Hood-esque rebel leader. This only deepened my affection for the film, as I formed an intense identification with a bumbling fool who bluffs his way to respect.
Not unlike The Seven Year Itch (although lacking that script’s satiric recoil), the film version of which was released a half-year prior, The Court Jester sings the praises of the sensitive man. It’s an easy enough comfort zone for a writer or otherwise artistically inclined person to find. Rejected are the supermen — the hulking warriors like Robert Middleton’s Griswold, the devious swordsmen like Basil Rathbone’s Ravenhurst, the theatrical leaders like Edward Ashley’s Black Fox. Into this tale of medieval England comes a meek entertainer named Hawkins, played by Danny Kaye. The fantasy is that the conventional rules can be overturned. This man, not his more skilled and experienced rivals, can win the battle and acquire an attractive mate. Lacking wit and self-awareness, such posturing can grow immensely tedious. This movie, however, a spoof of adventure tales, has a great deal of both.
Written, produced, and directed by the team of Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, The Court Jester presents an unmistakably artificial form of medieval dialogue. Overflowing with alliteration and rhyme, the words are an actor’s dream. The film’s most famous scene, of which I’ve written before, certainly springs to mind, with its extra words thrown in just for the sake of rhythm (it’s not a “poison pellet,” it’s “the pellet with the poison”). But there are equally great examples elsewhere, from “the grim, grisly, gruesome Griswold” to the doings of the duke, duchess, and doge. The get it/got it/good exchanges are a personal favorite. Lest it be forgotten that this film is also a musical (which can happen, considering Kaye is the only one who sings anything), the songs by Sammy Kahn and Sylvia Fine have more than their share of cleverness, as well. “The Maladjusted Jester” is a small masterpiece. In that moment, Hawkins stumbles into his true vocation, improvising a comic recitative before the most important audience he’s ever faced. For all the masks the character puts on in his quest to save England, that of the buffoon is the most natural and therefore the most successful.
The film’s dexterity extends to its scenarios, if not always the filmmaking. One inspired scene involves Hawkins, in character as the jester Giacomo but with his memory of the day’s intrigues recently wiped, getting accosted by three unrelated conspirators. They each issue brief instructions that make no sense to him. Were he in possession of all his faculties, he’d understand that the plots contradict each other. This sequence is conveyed in three separate shots. In the first, after the king’s retinue exits the frame, leaving Hawkins alone in a medium shot, a man appears from the right to hand him a basket. Then Ravenhurst approaches from behind, but before he speaks, the film cuts to a tighter shot of the two men. Ravenhurst is then followed by Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury). The sequence is capped by a close-up of the contents of the basket. It’s one shot too many, utilizing a better take, perhaps, but interrupting the flow of a moment that depends on unity of time and place for its effect. The narrative design is successful, with three strands that ultimately manage to untangle themselves while Hawkins looks on helplessly, but the visual storytelling is merely functional. The film’s visual appeal is mostly limited to the sumptuous costumes by Edith Head and Yvonne Wood, not to mention the people wearing them.
The dominant figure is the bundle of energy named Danny Kaye, leaping, sliding, and generally running for his life. He excels at the various impersonations thrown his way, from old codger to Don Juan to gallant knight. The film’s embrace of absurdity is never more apparent than the scenes in which Hawkins is under a witch’s spell. The trances can be switched on and off by the snap of a finger, so what else should happen but that people around Hawkins who’ve never been seen to snap their fingers before suddenly can’t stop? Kaye manages the quicksilver transformations with apparent ease. Although he steals the show, the rest of the cast brings varied comic approaches that work equally well. Glynis Johns does wonderful deadpan work as the heroine who’s tougher than Hawkins. Perhaps the most underappreciated performance belongs to Herbert Rudley as the captain of the guard, making disgruntled shouting about as funny as it can get.
Genial silliness might not always age well, but The Court Jester is so affable that it’s never worn out its welcome with me. The “pellet with the poison” scene is so familiar that, presented with an identical situation, I have no doubt that I’d remember the mnemonic device (which isn’t exactly the same thing as picking the right cup, of course). Presented with a situation that calls for physical stamina, though, I can see myself flailing with the same unmitigated terror Kaye shows as the stone walls close in on him and Ravenhurst’s sword nears its mark. Finding commonality with a protagonist isn’t reason enough to praise a film. Identification with the figures on screen is the beginning of cinephilia, not the end. Still, the storytelling foundation of this film is solid and enduring. As Kaye sings in the opening credits, “what starts like a scary tale ends like a fairy tale.” What, verily, could better be?