I once called Danny Kaye a discount Donald O’Connor, but now I’m wondering if Donald O’Connor isn’t a discount Danny Kaye. Unfortunately, the linguistic gymnastics of my opening line are nothing compared to the verbal tongue-twisters Kaye is known for, and none more so than in The Court Jester. I was ambivalent about my response to the film, but the more I think about it my enjoyment increases. Almost sixty years later, and The Court Jester retains its humor. Just be sure to remember “The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.”
The rightful king of England, a baby bearing the birthmark of the purple pimpernel, is hiding in the forest for fear of being killed by the false King Roderick (Cecil Parker). Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) is a carnival worker tasked with infiltrating the court to restore the rightful king along with the captain of the insurgency, Jean (Glynis Johns). The only way the duo can restore power is to get close the king, and to do so Hubert ends up masquerading as a world-renowned jester leading to a host of complications ranging from an assassination plot to foiling the love of Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury).
The Court Jester takes aim at the various costume dramas of the period and acts as a send-up of sorts. The opening song introducing the Black Fox is punctuated by the discovery that Kaye isn’t the Black Fox, but the lowly babysitter of the infant king responsible for flashing the baby’s bare-bottomed birthmark; it’s a job he feels a woman would be better suited for. Another well-done twist is making the captain of the outlaws, the right hand of the Black Fox, a female. Lady Jean is one of the better female maidens of this genre, despite her instantly falling for Hubert with little provocation. This is the first time I’ve watched Glynis Johns in her youth and not only is she gorgeous, but has an easy wit and tenacity to her. Lady Jean isn’t a weak heroine, nor is she purely a straight man. Her and Kaye’s rapport is electric and leads to the strongest comedic moment (for me, at least) involving the two acting as grandfather and daughter with Hubert acting deaf and Jean acting mute. Her mock sign language is amazing, and even funnier because you believe Hubert understands what it means.
Kaye is a man of many talents and they’re all on display. His comedic timing is impeccable, his dancing is astounding, but that’s nothing compared to his work with turn of phrase. There’s a reason the one-liners from this movie have endured and it’s because of the casual way Kaye turns complex tongue-twisters into regular speech. The infamous “flagon with the dragon” sequence is hilarious because of how confusing it is, but spellbinding to hear Kaye and Mildred Natwick as Griselda (“Gri-who-lda?”) effortlessly sail through the lines. The punchline is Hubert’s exasperation with it all, only to have Jean effortlessly remind Hubert of where the poison is; he responds, “Well then you fight him.”
The comedy blends with the narrative without coming off as silly or cheap. The remaining male cast members include action/suspense regulars including the accomplished Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, and Michael Pate all providing the necessary normality to prevent the plot from diving into absurdity. Kaye himself also understands the need for derring-do in the climatic sword fight which feels natural to him. And one can’t ignore the leading ladies, Johns and Lansbury. Each woman provides her own source of humor, and while I’ve already detailed Johns’ accomplishments let’s not ignore Lansbury. Princess Gwendolyn is a princess practically driven mad by stories of true love. So when she’s due for an arranged marriage she threatens her nursemaid, Griselda, to find her a man or else they’ll both be forced to die. It’s a sly bit of self-awareness which works because of how serious Lansbury treats the character.
The Court Jester could become a silly piece of fluff, but ends up being a hilarious send-up of outlaw movies coupled with an amazing performance by Kaye and Johns. I didn’t expect to love the movie nearly as much as I did, but it’s a new favorite.
Amazon is a bit too expensive, so your dollars are better spent buying Warner Archive’s two-pack featuring this and The Five Pennies. You can order directly from Warner Archive.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.