Filmsite Movie Review
The Court Jester (1955)
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The Court Jester (1955) is Paramount's Vista-Vision comedy film starring Danny Kaye (in his best-known performance). It was a classic, high-energy, mad-cap musical spoof of the dashing adventure films in Hollywood's Golden Age of Swashbucklers (many of which starred Errol Flynn) - with a masked Robin Hood or Zorro character in the forest, the romancing of a Princess-damsel in a tower, wenches, hypnotic spells, dueling, jousting with a knight's suit of body armor, and much more.

From the writing/directing/producing team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, the musical costume comedy set in medieval times featured some of motion picture history's best comedic wordplay, in its story revolving around mistaken identity. It blended numerous genres together: musical, adventure-swashbuckler, comedy (screwball), and live-action cartoon. Other swashbucker spoofs/parodies include The Crimson Pirate (1952), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, UK), Cheech & Chong's: The Corsican Brothers (1984), The Princess Bride (1987), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), and The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-2017).

Danny Kaye starred as ex-acrobat and minstrel entertainer Hubert Hawkins, one of the members of the "Merry Men" of The Black Fox (Edward Ashley), a Robin Hood-esque or Zorro-like hero/outlaw who was leading a group of rebel loyalists to protect the throne from usurpation. They wished to ensure that the rightful royal heir to the throne (a baby with a purple pimpernel birthmark on its behind, who was being cared for in the forest) was installed.

Adept at impersonation, Hawkins winded up pretending to be Giacomo (John Carradine) - the new court jester of the royal usurper King Roderick the First (Cecil Parker), in order to enter Roderick's palace. Complications arose when it was revealed that unbeknownst to Hawkins, Giacomo was also a skilled assassin, hired by the scheming Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) to kill Roderick and acquire the throne for himself.

Making matters even more difficult was the film's romantic sub-plot regarding the King's daughter Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) who was being reluctantly forced into a political-marital alliance, and the use of a hypnotic spell by her evil lady-in-waiting and ambitious court witch Griselda (Mildred Natwick) to hypnotize Hawkins (or "Giacomo") into being her dashing lover.

Unfortunately, when the film was first released in the mid-1950s, it failed at the box-office (with only $2.2 million domestic revenue). In fact, the production lost money despite being one of the most expensive film comedy productions at the time, at a budget of about $4 million. The film's only awarded honor at the time was a Golden Globe nomination for Danny Kaye's Best Performance by an Actor, Musical or Comedy.

Plot Synopsis

Opening Title Sequence:

The opening title sequence was accompanied by a musical solo performed by Danny Kaye as an acrobatic "court jester" - "Life Could Not Better Be" - "Life could not better be, better be, better be It could not possibly, no sirrrah, sirrah, sirree Songs could not gayer be, sound your do, re, or mi Re, mi, fa, so, la si, Fa la la la follow me..."

Main Plot: Conflict Regarding Ascendancy to the Royal Throne:

The film's narrator explained how conflict arose over ascendancy to the royal throne:

This is the story of how the destiny of a nation was changed by a birthmark, a royal birthmark, on the royal posterior of a royal infant child. Here returning to his castle is King Roderick. Roderick the tyrant, who some months before seized the throne by a massacre of the entire royal family. But uneasy lies Roderick's crown, for rumor hath it that an infant, the rightful heir to the throne, had survived the massacre. And even now is being cared for by a group in the forest. A group led by an elusive dashing outlaw known only as the Black Fox!

The royal usurper to the throne was King Roderick the First (Cecil Parker), who was supported by three advisors: Lords Brockhurst (Alan Napier), Finsdale (Lewis Martin) and Pertwee (Patrick Aherne). The King had ordered Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) to eliminate the royal family and its infant king, and Ravenhurst asserted that he had been successful: ("Sire, there is no child. My men assure me that none of the royal family escaped alive"), but he had obviously failed.

The King (with support from his advisors) was pressuring his pretty daughter - Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) - into a politically-important marriage with Sir Griswold of the North (Robert Middleton), who was arriving the next day for a tournament. The Princess was opposed to the unromantic, political alliance with Griswold: ("Marriage with Griswold? Never!...He's a brute and a lout!...When I marry, I marry for love. Someone dashing and romantic, who will carry me off as a princess should be carried off!"). And because of his own political ambitions, Ravenhurst was also opposed to the marital alliance, confirmed by one of the King's advisors Brockhurst who noted:

Perhaps our friend Ravenhurst fears an alliance would put Griswold and not himself at the king's right hand!

The Introduction of the Black Fox, Hubert Hawkins, and Jean:

A group of loyalists faithful to the throne wanted to ensure that the rightful royal heir (a child with a purple pimpernel royal birthmark on its behind) was restored to the throne and put there instead of the usurper - King Roderick. A rebel group of "Merry Men" who hid out in the forest were led by a Robin Hood-esque or masked Zorro-like hero/outlaw known as The Black Fox (Edward Ashley). To assure his position, the King ordered the execution of the Black Fox ('Wanted - Dead or Alive') and the child:

Kill the infamous child who claims to be the rightful king. And destroy forever this traitorous fiend who calls himself the Black Fox!

In the forest, the great production number: "(You'll Never) Outfox the Fox" was apparently being performed by the Black Fox. However, it was revealed that the Black Fox was being impersonated by one of his aspiring Merry Men - an ex-carnival minstrel-entertainer named Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye). He performed with his band of acrobatic, ex-carnival "little people" (costumed in Black Fox clothing). Another member of the Black Fox's band was a maid named Jean (Glynis Johns) - a Captain of the recruits. [Note: Her character was reminiscent of Maid Marian in the Robin Hood tales.]

Hawkins' and Jean's Plan to Protect the Royal Infant - Hawkins' Impersonation of Court Jester Giacomo:

For safe-keeping and to guard the royal infant, the baby was to be whisked away to the Abbey in Dover by Maid Jean with Hawkins (who was adept at impersonation to avoid detection). They both disguised themselves as wine merchants - as bearded, elderly Foltzingdale with his lovely young granddaughter. They hid the child in a fake wooden wine barrel on a horse-drawn cart, and in a cleverly played sequence, they were able to evade the King's men who became utterly exasperated when questioning them. Hawkins pretended to be hard-of-hearing and asthmatic, while Jean faked being mute and capable of a weird form of sign language. The two were ultimately dismissed as "dolts."

With a storm brewing, they spent the night in a woodman's hut, where they were forced to sleep together in the stable. Jean confessed that she was impressed by his kind tenderness shown toward the royal baby, and admitted that she could love him even if he wasn't a fighter: 'I am a woman. And I do have feelings....Sometimes tenderness and kindness can also make a man. A very rare man" - she hinted that she could marry him once their mission and "fight for freedom" were accomplished - and they kissed.

She distracted him by describing their ultimate plan - to use a secret tunnel and passageway leading from the forest to underneath the walls of King Roderick's castle, where they could gain access by obtaining a key (in the King's possession in his chambers) and then have the Black Fox launch a surprise attack. Their plan came to fruition when another traveler on the road entered the stable. He introduced himself as an Italian from the court named Giacomo (John Carradine) (pronounced "Jockamo"). He bragged about how he was the newly-hired court jester for King Roderick's court. Jean rendered Giacomo unconscious (off-screen) so that Hawkins could take his place as the 'court jester' in order to enter the King's palace and chambers to obtain the key to the secret passageway. Hawkins was instructed to give the key to their confederate inside the castle - who could be contacted and signaled with a whistled secret call. She emphasized:

Hawkins, the future of England depends on this; you cannot fail....Now remember, from this moment on, you're no longer Hubert Hawkins the carnival entertainer; You're the incomparable Giacomo, king of jesters and jester to the king.

Intrigue in the Castle - Sir Ravenhurst's Plan to Hire Giacomo to Assassinate the King:

Back at the castle, Princess Gwendolyn again voiced her rejection of her father's demands for a forced marriage and alliance to Griswold: "I've seen this monster, and it's not for nothing he's called the grim, the grisly, gruesome Griswold." He angrily ordered her to her chambers and called for the marriage to be arranged immediately after the next day's tournament. The King's men were ordered to seize the fairest wenches in the kingdom to serve in the King's court. He demanded: "Wenches, laughter, song, that's what this court needs!" Ravenhurst reminded the King about how he had sent for a court jester named Giacomo who would arrive soon: "By reputation the gayest and wittiest entertainer in Europe." The scheming Ravenhurst privately noted to his henchman Sir Locksley (Michael Pate) about the true talent of Giacomo and his objective - to assassinate the King:

In addition to his brilliance as an entertainer, the jester Giacomo also happens to be the world's most skillful, devious, and subtle master of the art of assassination.

Meanwhile, "Giacomo" (Hawkins in disguise) separated from Jean and the infant king who continued on their journey to the Abbey. "Giacomo" was unaware that he had been hired as a skilled assassin by the scheming Sir Ravenhurst in the King's retinue, who wanted to acquire the throne for himself. Ravenhurst's dastardly plan was to assassinate King Roderick and his three advisors: Lords Brockhurst, Finsdale and Pertwee who were pushing for the alliance between the King and Sir Griswold. "Giacomo" was also unaware that Jean (and the hidden baby) were kidnapped by the King's men and taken to the castle where she arrived before him, to serve as one of his wenches. The film's narrator summarized the plot:

So as Hawkins becomes the incomparable Giacomo and heads for the castle, while the maid Jean with the infant king still hidden in the wine cask, journeys towards the Abbey and safety for the child. Their plan seems simple enough, but the simplest plans so often go a miss. For at the very moment Hawkins was delayed on the road, the maid Jean was to run afoul of the King's men, who were scouring the countryside for the fairest wenches in the land. And so Jean and the precious wine cart, were taken and sent to the castle before Hawkins had even completed repairing his wheel.

As she arrived in a cart carrying over a dozen wenches, Jean was able to whistle and communicate with the castle's stableman (or ostler) Fergus (Noel Drayton), Hawkins' original rebel confederate contact who was spying for the Black Fox, to retrieve and take care of the royal child while she was dragged away with the other wenches.

Soon after, Princess Gwendolyn was promised by the ambitious court witch and her evil-eyed lady-in-waiting Griselda (Mildred Natwick) - when held at knifepoint - that she was destined and prophesied to marry the jester "Giacomo." Gwendolyn threatened Griselda (calling her a "creature of evil") if her prophesy didn't come true: "If this be not my true love, and I am faced with marriage to Griswold, you will die, and by my hand." Griselda reassured her: "Fear not, m'lady, your lover will be here, in this room, within the hour. And he will prove that his is a mission of love."

"Giacomo's" (Hawkins in Disguise) Arrival at the Castle:

A fanfare greeted the fake "Giacomo" as his wagon was escorted into the castle's courtyard and parked. He was unable to establish contact with Fergus before Sir Ravenhurst and Sir Locksley approached. He misidentified Ravenhurst as his confederate contact, and thinking that his mission was to retrieve the key from the King's chambers, he assured Ravenhurst:

"Giacomo": I'd like to get in, get on with it, get it over with, and get out. Get it?
Ravenhurst: Got it.
"Giacomo": Good.

"Giacomo" asked to be taken to the King's chambers and then made a joke with a veiled reference to the key he was searching for: "It may be the Key to the whole plan, get it?" Again Ravenhurst responded: "Got it" and "Giacomo" replied: "Good."

The Film's First Word-Play Dialogue - The Duke, the Duchess, and the Doge:

Once the King arrived to greet "Giacomo" - they engaged in the film's first tongue-twisting classic word-play dialogue while discussing the Italian court with three main characters, the Duke, the Duchess, and the Chief Magistrate or Doge:

- Ah, I must say, I was shocked to hear about the Duchess. What did the Duke do?
- Pardon?
- The Duke. What did the Duke do?
- Uh, the Duke do?
- Yes. And what about the Doge?
- Oh, the Doge!
- Uh. Well, what did the Doge do?
- The Doge do?
- Yes, the Doge do.
- Well, uh, the Doge did what the Doge does. Uh, when the Doge does his duty to the Duke, that is.
- What? What's that?
- Oh, it's very simple, sire. When the Doge did his duty and the Duke didn't, that's when the Duchess did the dirt to the Duke with the Doge.
- Who did what to what?
- Oh, they all did, sire. There they were in the dark; the Duke with his dagger, the Doge with his dart, and the Duchess with her dirk.
- Duchess with her dirk?
- Yes! The Duchess dove at the Duke just when the Duke dove at the Doge. Now the Duke ducked, the Doge dodged, and the Duchess didn't. So the Duke got the Duchess, the Duchess got the Doge, and the Doge got the Duke!

Confused by "Giacomo's" response about a triple murder (with various murder weapons) between the Duchess (with a dirk), the Doge (with a dart), and the Duke (with a dagger), the King clarified that all he was referring to was the fact that the Duchess "had a siege of rheumatism. She's 83, you know."

On his way to inspect the "luscious" wenches, the King was persuaded by Sir Ravenhurst to have "Giacomo" select a wench for him: "If I may suggest, it ill befits the propriety of your high office to be seen with these unkempt wenches... It is said the incomparable Giacomo has a discerning eye for beauty. Eh, why not let him select a suitable companion for your majesty?" The King agreed and expected the selected wench to be brought to his chambers within an hour.

Imposter "Giacomo" - An Unwitting Pawn in the Castle:

Sir Locksley was immediately suspicious about "Giacomo": "Your Giacomo seems more the fool than the assassin." "Giacomo" became the unwitting pawn of many others -- some with devious and villainous objectives:

  • it was already established that "Giacomo" had been hired by Ravenhurst to assassinate the King, but he didn't realize how he was being used
  • "Giacomo" became overly-impressed with his own "incomparable" abilities as a jester and sang to himself, forgetting about his mission to save the monarchy; Fergus (who was guarding the royal child) approached to identify himself and warn him away from Ravenhurst: "It is I, not Ravenhurst who is your friend," but "Giacomo" ignored him
  • Princess Gwendolyn's threat to Griselda was to help her avoid her father's intentions to marry Sir Griswold; Griselda decided to substitute "Giacomo" as the Princess' lover; she placed or cast a hypnotizing spell upon "Giacomo" - [Note: The spell could be activated and then hilariously undone - by just a snap of the fingers.] Griselda convinced him to believe that he was a dashing, super-confident romantic lover; he was commanded to obediently "go to her room and make love!...You are a figure of romance; of spirit and action, but at the same time humble and tender. You are a man of iron with the soul of a poet. You are adventurous, gay, but with a lover's brooding melancholy, and above all, you must show passion! Show passion!...Above all, remember you must be cavalier, dashing!"

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