Updated: Feb 7
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Danny Kaye in one of his best onscreen performances as Hubert Hawkins, an ex-carnival performer. "The Court Jester" by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, had a budget of $4 million, considered quite a lot in 1955.
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“THE COURT JESTER” – PARAMOUNT PRESENTS
Blu-ray, Digital copy; 1955; Not Rated; streaming via Amazon Video/Prime, Apple, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: “Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Court Jester”
EMBRACE THE SILLY side of medieval court life with Danny Kaye and a castle filled with a great support cast: Angela Lansbury, Basil Rathbone, Glynis Johns, Mildred Natwick and Cecil Parker.
Also a squad of children acting as adult carnival performers, who kick butt when required. It’s not PC, but still a lot of fun.
The medieval farce comes from Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, who after working with Bob Hope for 20 years, “got the clout,” Leonard Maltin says, to make their own films. They always returned to Hope, but worked with other stars like Danny Kaye.
“I would be hard-pressed to categorize their brand of humor because they did such a wide range of films. From the sophisticated observational comedy of ‘Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House’ (1948) with Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, to the slapstick of ‘The Court Jester,’ to the adult situation comedy of ‘The Facts of Life’ (1960) with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball.” — Leonard Maltin, film critic and historian
Born in Brooklyn, 1911, to Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, Kay led a fascinating life. He wanted to be a doctor, but couldn’t afford medical school. Instead, he held a variety of jobs and lost most of them. As a dentist’s assistant, he was fired after the man returned from lunch to find Kaye playing with the dentist drill on the office furniture. It was time for a career on the road, eventually performing in the vaudeville circuit. Later, he met the same dentist’s daughter, Sylvia Fine, an American lyricist, composer and producer, who also grew up in his neighborhood, at an audition. They fell in love and eloped after he proposed on the phone. He and Sylvia had one child, a daughter Dena.
(1) King Roderick of England (Cecil Parker) and his top advisor, Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Ravenhurst) learn that the true heir to the crown lives after a coup that destroyed his family. The little prince can be recognized by his royal birthmark, a purple pimpernel, on his bottom. (2) Men of Black Fox who guard the royal child sing, “Outfox the Fox.” (3) The Black Fox orders Hawkins and Maid Jean, played by Glynis Johns, to get the baby to safety. Johns also played Mrs. Banks in Walt Disney's "Mary Poppins" (1964). (4) The little people who worked with Hawkins at the carnival, who he considers the finest troupe of acrobats and tumblers in all of England. (5) Hawkins reveals the prince’s birthmark.
Aside from a career on the stage and film – he starred in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947); “The Inspector General” (1949); “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952), and perennial favorite, “White Christmas” (1954), with Bing Crosby – Kaye was a tireless ambassador for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). An enthusiastic pilot, he once flew a Learjet to 65 cities in five days on a fundraising/awareness mission for them.
The host of his own variety show on TV, it was a tradition for Kaye to interact with children, who appeared as guests. It could be that the army of “midgets” in “The Court Jester” evolved from this. At any rate, he loved children and children loved him back.
The rescue of a baby lies at the heart of the film. The little prince, known by a purple pimpernel birthmark on his bottom, is the only surviving member of the royal family after a massacre by the cruel King Roderick of England (Cecil Parker). Surprisingly, Roderick seems little more than a tough pussycat when we meet him. The arch-villain is Sir Ravenhurst, played by none other than Basil Rathbone himself, the ruthless swordsman of “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), and “Captain Blood” (1935), with Errol Flynn, and “The Mark of Zorro” (1940), with Tyrone Power. He was the perfect representative of the swashbuckling adventure films Panama and Frank lampooned in “The Court Jester,” which begins with a comic dance sequence parody of Robin Hood and his Merry Men.
Kaye’s medieval carney, Hubert Hawkins, is no adventurer and gets in over his head while transporting the baby to safety alongside Glynis Johns (“Mary Poppins”), the beautiful and capable Maid Jean he loves. They are captured by the king’s men and brought to the castle; Maid Jean as one of the wenches brought in for the upcoming party and Hubert in disguise as Giacomo, “King of Jesters, Jester of Kings.” Little does he know that Giacomo, who first appears played by John Carradine in a clever cameo, is an assassin hired by Sir Ravenhurst, who plans to take the throne himself after eliminating Roderick and the baby.
(1) Maid Jean and Hawkins transport the child, hidden in a wine cask, to the Abbey in Dover. (2) Hawkins sings a lullaby, “I'll Take You Dreaming.” (2) Maid Jean and Hawkins have a heart-to-heart talk about the future of the kingdom, and their relationship. (3) Hawkins takes on the disguise of the Incomparable Giacomo “King of Jesters and Jester of the Kings.” (4) The king's daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), confronts the witch Griselda (Mildred Natwick), who foretold the princess would marry for love. (5) Giacomo meets Princess Gwendolyn, who believes he's her true love.
Before we reach the brilliantly goofy finale, Hubert/Giacomo must deal with the king’s daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) and her witchy Lady in Waiting, Griselda (Mildred Natwick). Patter – “Get it?” “Got it.” “Good!” – and tongue-twisting confusion – “The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon. The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true” – become the norm as well as other nonsense moments like the drill team knights.
“[Hubert] may be officially the jester, but what he has to do is learn to juggle. Juggle the affections of the princess, played by Angela Lansbury, and the ire of the king, who knights him only to have him compete in a jousting match. The happy ending is never in doubt, but getting there is the challenge.” — Leonard Maltin
Paramount Presents gives us an ultra-satisfying 1080p transfer resulting from a recent 6K scan of the original large-format VistaVision negative. Three-time Academy Award nominee Ray June, a cameraman in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I, brought the film to life.
Bold, saturated color, and excellent detail and textural quality look perfect. Fleshtones and complexions are also very good. “The Court Jester” relies on studio sets that provide a storybook rather than realistic portraits of medieval times. Beards look fake on the children and we also glimpse machine-made seams on the clothing, examples of further intentional distancing.
Basil Rathbone was a world-class swordsman, and “The Court Jester” was his last fight on film. Those scenes between Kaye and Rathbone are flawlessly edited. At 63, during the “snap” swordfight, the fight choreographer in costume as Sir Ravenhurst performed when the character was shot from behind.
“When you saw the name of Ray June as cinematographer on a film in the ‘30s, 40s or ‘50s, you knew it was going to look beautiful. That’s what he did. He helped create what was known as the ‘MGM style.’ A kind of a glassy sheen that was true of a B movie or a blockbuster.” — Leonard Maltin
(1) Griselda overhears courtiers of the king's court pledge to support the marriage alliance of Princess Gwendolyn and powerful Northern knight, Sir Griswold. (2) Giacomo sings “The Maladjusted Jester” at the King’s party, one of the film’s biggest musical scenes.
Unfortunately, the 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack falls a bit flat when compared to the film’s excellent visuals. Dialogue, effects and score have been cleaned up, and the delivery is good. But the stereo surround doesn’t provide the level of fantasy escapism we expected.
Aside from the trailer that really shows how well the film was restored, we have the one carryover, “Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Court Jester” and it is very good. I’m glad Paramount included this.
“I think this is one of the best films that Norman Panama and Melvin Frank ever made. It’s such a great showcase for Danny Kaye and all his special skills. Plus, it tells a good story and it has the perfect cast to tell that story. To me this movie is an old friend that you never want to let drift out of your life.” — Leonard Maltin
These are the times when we can all use a good laugh. “The Court Jester” is family-friendly, and can be enjoyed by adults or children alone. Dena, Kaye’s daughter, said that for the rest of his life, when people recognized him in a restaurant, they would walk up and repeat the entire “brew that is true” speech.
Danny Kaye loved it.
— Kay Reynolds
(1) Quickly knighted to meet Sir Griswald on the field of honor, Hawkins is sure he'll be defeated. He tells Maid Jean, “If I die, just pray that I die bravely.” (2,3 & 4) Hawkins, whose armor has been magnetized by a lightning strike, faces Griswold in mortal combat while the royal court looks on. (5) Sir Ravenscourt supports Hawkins during the match, secretly hoping Griswold will finish him off.