Now That’s What I Call Quite Good: The Court Jester

the court jester indexDanny Kaye opens this 1955 bit of daftness with a bit of fourth wall breaking singing as he informs us that “Songs could not gayer be” and orders us not to be gloomy as he brings on the credits to the film, occasionally being crushed or annoyed by them. He even starts joking about how “After the dust had cleared, half the cast had a beard” before commenting “which brings us to the plot, the plot we got quite a lot” and “What starts like a scary tale, ends like a fairy tale” which is a slightly annoying spoiler though probably one which isn’t a huge surprise.

A more conventional film continues though the narrator explains how this is all “A story of how the destiny of a nation was changed by a birthmark”, and one on the posterior of a royal child at that. Said child is being protected by the Robin Hood-esque The Black Fox (Edward Ashley), but when the new King (Cecil Parker) learns of the child’s existence and how it risks his legitimacy to the throne he wants it dead, and sends his men in to the forest to kill it. A complicated plan involving The Black Fox’s long suffering associate Hawkins (Danny Kaye) and Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) is put in to place, and an even more complicated affair plays out as Hawkins pretends to be Giacomo, the new court jester, so that he can steal a key to a secret tunnel that will let The Black Fox and co break in to the court and kill the King.

It’s a farcical piece with many a mix up with people mistaking the identity of a number of different characters, made all the crazier by the fact that poor old Giacomo was hired by Basil Rathbone’s Sir Ravenhurst to kill off his rivals Sir Brockhurst, Sir Finsdale, Sir Pertwee, and of course Hawkins has no clue about this at all. And then it becomes even more convoluted when Hawkins is hypnotised by the Princess’s maid Griselda (Mildred Natwick) in to falling madly in love with the Princess (Angela Lansbury) and has no memory of his time when under hypnosis, even though the King plans to marry her off to Sir Griswold (Robert Middleton, who appears to be the 50’s version of Brian Blessed). Oh, and Maid Jean and the baby Prince are brought in to the court by accident too, and hijinks ensue and ensue and ensue.

It’s also part musical, with Hawkins introduced when he’s pretending to be The Black Fox and hanging out with seven little people, played by an ensemble called Hermine’s Midgets, because boy was this a different time, and when the real Black Fox turns up he’s a size-ist bastard and then some. Hawkins also chucks out a couple of tunes to entertain the court when he’s in the guise of Giacomo, and one in particular is a very amusing number, though the final forty minutes are pretty much song free alas. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a film made in the nineteen fifties its sexual politics is a little muddled, at first Maid Jean seems like a surprisingly strong kick ass female lead but sadly it’s not long before she wilts in Hawkins’ arms, and though the King is undoubtedly a cad and villainous, a lot of his wench obsessed humour is unpleasantly rape based, though thankfully when he turns his attentions to Maid Jean she manages to put him off with some fun plague related humour. At least Angela Lansbury’s Princess doesn’t take any shit, though she too falls for Danny Kaye’s charms far too easily, but the way she stands up to her father and turns murderous makes up for that.

Still, most of the time this is an extremely engaging work, Kaye excels as both a charming male lead and daft jester type and is a superb physical comedian, while he’s got a strong voice too. Lansbury is nicely spiky, when Maid Jean isn’t lusting after Kaye she has some fun moments, and Parker and Rathbone make for decent enough villains. The plot is a pleasingly twisty and complex affair and heads in a couple of unexpected directions, it would have benefitted from a couple more songs but the ones that we got are great, and this is understandably highly regarded even despite it dating slightly poorly in a couple of areas.

★★★3/4

Alex Finch.
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