22 February, 2014

The Court Jester

                              I've got it!  The pellet with the poison's in the
                              vessel with the pestle, and the chalice from the
                              palace has the brew that is true!  Right?

                              Right.  But there's been a change.  They broke the
                              chalice from the palace.

                              They broke the chalice from the palace?

                              And replaced it with a flagon.

                              A flagon?

                              With the figure of a dragon.

                              A flagon with a dragon.


                              But did you put the pellet with the poison in the
                              vessel with the pestle?

                              No!  The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with
                              the dragon.  The vessel with the pestle has the brew
                              that is true! 

                              The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the
                              dragon;  the vessel with the pestle has the brew that
                              is true.

                                         (as if it’s the simplest thing in the world)
                             Just remember that.

               Yes, dear readers, it ranks up there with “Who’s On First?”  Mildred Natwick as Griselda and, of course, Danny Kaye as Hawkins.  If you know the bit, you know how funny it is.  If you don’t?   Welcome.  You’re in for a real treat.

The Court Jester (1955)
w Norman Panama & Melvin Frank
d  Norman Panama & Melvin Frank

              Coming into the mid-fifties, the previous two decades were filled with medieval glory -- from Fairbanks to Flynn to Stewart Granger (who, if you don’t know that last name, stars in Scaramouche, coming up in our Janet Leigh Top 5) -- so it was time for Hollywood to play-on.  And who better to spoof the merry madness than Danny Kaye?  Teamed with Panama & Frank, The Court Jester is as much Homage as Parody;  catapulting Swords-And-Tights into big, broad -- Vista Vision! -- Comedy Adventure.

            While the infant King of England awaits his rightful place as leader of the British Empire, he’s usurped by Roderick (Cecil Parker), a wannabe ruler of the throne.  Brave rebel leader The Black Fox (Edward Ashley) intends to remove Roderick from the palace and bring the crown back to its true owner.  But in the meantime The Baby King needs to be looked after, which becomes the job of Hawkins (Kaye).  The Black Fox travels with The Baby King and his Rebels as they search for the key to a secret tunnel that will give them access into the castle.  Maid Jean (Glynis Johns), one of The Rebels, meets a man en route who is to be Roderick's new Jester.  The Rebels quickly switch said Jester for Hawkins.  The Rebels can then find the key and initiate the overthrow.  But wait!  Hawkins is not only mistaken for A Master Assassin, but Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) falls in love with him, which puts him in doubly hot water with Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone), the evil genius behind the merry madness.


            Yes, the plot may seem a tad convoluted, but only in the best sort of way.  How?  Why?  Well, as we talked a little during Wonder Man -- Kaye playing an Entertainer and Dual Role -- here Panama & Frank mold the story to Kaye’s talents.  He’s a Jester hypnotized in and out of heroism (again in a Dual Role);  and, as we were talking about Bob Hope’s characters being written so he could “be Bob” -- a Vaudevillian, a Radio Star -- note here that Hawkins was once in The Carnival, allowing him wit and charm and even some acrobatics.

             Is it fun?  Our old friend Bosley Crowther sums it up well in his original New York Times Review;  saying, in part:

It stood to reason that somebody would eventually cut loose and do a slam-bang burlesque on recent movies about knighthood and derring-do.  And we are happy to report that it's been leaped-at by no less a clown than Danny Kaye, who lands with both feet in The Court Jester.
[Panama & Frank], being ardent showmen, have opened Mr. Kaye to a whole area of Robin Hoodish romance in which to range.  They’ve started him off in the green-suited retinue of a bold and gallant Forest Leader who champions an infant heir to the English throne.
Then they whirl him around a few times and head him straight to the court of the wicked, conniving fellow who has usurped the throne.  And there, in the guise of A Court Jester, have him outrageously involved in palace intrigue, a romance with a princess, and a daring plot to enthrone the infant.
There’s Mr. Kaye making ardent passes at Glynis Johns and Angela Lansbury, all the while under Mildred Natwick’s spell.  Literally.  And there’s Mr. Kaye frantically regaling the court with the -- always wonderful -- Sylvia Fine lament of a maladjusted jester who is a bundle of quivering nerves.
If one should sense a somewhat broader and blunter attack on farce -- and on the shaping of a character -- than is usual with Mr. Kaye, that would not be surprising, for this story does not have subtlety.  [Kaye] is a funny fellow bounced all over the place.
But Mr. Kaye -- and Cecil Parker and Miss Lansbury and Glynis Johns and (especially) Basil Rathbone -- play it adroitly.  The color and the costuming are gaudy, and the whole thing, on the VistaVision screen, has an audacious size and splash about it.  But in the end, as we hope it to be?  Brilliantly good fun.
            Indeed, sir;  brilliantly good fun it is.
            We’ll start today’s Who’s Who with our tag team Writers-Directors, Norman Panama & Melvin Frank.  You remember them from these Top 5s for having Written The Road To Utopia and White Christmas (and we talked about them in both of those so I won’t retraverse the rabbit hole here).  As they progressed in their careers -- certainly by our film today -- they were “loosely” credited in Writing, Producing and Directing.  That is -- and I mean this respectufully -- not unlike The Coen Brothers today, “Panama & Frank” did it all.  And coming off White Christmas with Mr. Kaye, what a natural fit Court Jester was.
So let’s move on to Princess Gwendolyn.  That’s who she plays in our movie today but she’s no doubt recognized the world over as Jessica Fletcher:  Miss Angela Lansbury.  Sorry, Dame Angela Lansbury (she’s earned it).  You’d think she’d be an EGOT (someone who’s won an Emmy, Golden Globe, Oscar and Tony) but she’s not.  Twelve years on Murder, She Wrote and which one is she missing?  The Emmy.  (Yeah, I rank it up there with Jackie Gleason not having one either, but I digress.)  Dame Lansbury -- who, wonderfully, is still with us -- is an incredibly broad performer, as comfortable -- and acceptable to her audience -- in the likes of her famous TV Show, on stage, in Gene Kelly’s The Three Musketeers (1948) well through Mrs. Potts in Beauty And The Beast (1991).  And if you think she’s just the grandmotherly type, there’s Death On The Nile (1978) and A Talent For Murder (1984;  that TV Movie based on the Play co-written by our own Norman Panama).  And wait’ll you see her in The Manchurian Candidate (1962);  that one also coming up in our Janet Leigh Top 5.  

A couple of fun tie-ins to Court Jester, Lansbury and Glynis Johns (Maid Jean today, and you no doubt recognize her from Mary Poppins) would reunite in a Murder, She Wrote:  “Sing A Song Of Murder” (1985).   And Mildred Natwick (Griselda here and John Ford fans will recognize her from many of his films) would appear in another Murder, She Wrote:  “Murder In The Electric Cathedral” (1986).  As for Bob Hope?  (Admit it, you’ve missed him.)  Dame Lansbury and Old Ski Nose were longtime friends and she spoke at his Memorial.
Now let’s get to that favorite question at The Oscars:  “Who are you wearing?”  I’m sure many of you have been wondering when I’d get to this next lady.  After all, in these Top 5s alone -- as Paramount’s unchallenged Queen -- she dressed:

The Cat And The Canary
The Ghost Breakers
Nothing But The Truth
The Road To Utopia
My Favorite Brunette
White Christmas
and our movie today

In her time she dressed everyone at The Oscars.  No, not at The Oscars, but when it counted:  on screen.  I’m of course talking about Miss Edith Head.  Nominated for thirty-five Oscars -- get this, annually from ‘48 to ’66 -- she won eight.  Think that’s impressive?  It is, but look at this:  In 1951, she won two, for (Black & White) All About Eve and (Color) Samson And Delilah.  Her last film?  A great tip-of-the-hat to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the 1982 Carl Reiner-Steve Martin comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (dedicated to her).  If you haven’t seen it, fans of The 40s are in for a real treat.  Miss Head herself said of it, “I guess I've come full circle when I design the exact dress for Steve Martin that I did for Barbara Stanwyck.” 

Both Paramount and Universal have buildings named for her -- she moved from Paramount to Universal in 1967 -- and The Incredibles’ Edna Mode was modeled after her (Mode is French for Fashion).  Want a great story you can tell you friends?  Those “sunglasses” of hers weren’t sunglasses but blue-lensed so she could see what the “Color Real World” looked like in the “Black & White Film World.”  Most Directors Of Photography had a monacle-looking lens they’d hold up.  Well, Miss Head had glasses made.

But back to our story.  And switching moods for a moment. 

While Danny Kaye was world famous for his comedy -- and Court Jester is indeed a great example -- let’s at least note his last feature film appearance, the TV Movie Skokie (incidentally Co-Starring Carl Reiner), which has a serious tone.  Kaye plays a Holocaust survivor protesting a planned march by Neo-Nazis (and if you haven’t at least seen his speech in the church, please do).  It’s a really brilliant “turn” for the actor;  certainly his persona.  Kaye also went serious in Me And The Colonel, The Five Pennies and, with Katharine Hepburn, in The Madwoman Of Chaillot.  Why switch moods at all (here in this write-up)?  Simply because of his talent.  Kaye was funny, sure;  but his working both sides of the fence, comedy and drama?  I’d be remiss to not at least mention it.  (To note, in casting Patton Oswalt in Dollhouse -- a comedian in a serious role -- Joss Whedon comments on how difficult it is to be funny;  therefore, in contrast, to place someone with that innate talent -- bringing the funny -- but then moving us is, more than you’d think, natural.  After all, look at Chaplin in The Kid.  The card at the head of that classic reads, “a smile, and perhaps a tear.”  You can even look at Jackie Gleason in The Hustler or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.  When it’s talent, it’s just there.)

A 2001 review of The Court Jester writes, in part:

A fun, feel-good film, [it’s] a virtual showcase for the versatile Danny Kaye, and he gives an unforgettable performance.  This is true comedy at its best.  For some real laughs, just call for Kaye.  Completely conducive to contemporary conviviality.  Get it?  Got it.  Good.  Yay, verily, yay!  Indeed, the magic of the movies.

And for those of you that know, I love the inclusion there of, “Get it, got it, good;”  one of my favorite exchanges in the movie, with none other than -- flipping the coin we tossed earlier, someone dramatic now bringing the funny -- Basil Rathbone excelling in comedy.  We touched on him during The Mark Of Zorro but you must see how much fun he’s having here, reveling in the moustache-twirling villainy.  (Think I’m overstating?  Even his Credit in our movie today has fun.)

            And so, dear readers, here we are wrapping up our Danny Kaye Top 5.  The incomparable Giacomo.  And I don’t use “incomparable” lightly, for who can we compare him to?  There are other great comics, sure, like Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd;  and then Benny and Hope and Allen.  But Kaye?  Encapsulating everything he did, the way he did?  In as relatively a brief amount of time as he did?  Remember, over four decades, Kaye only made seventeen films.  No, I’m not going to compare him.

Okay, maybe Jim Carrey. 

According to Mr. Kaye’s daughter, Dena Kaye, for the rest of his life, whenever someone would recognize him in public, they would run up and deliver "Pellet With The Poison" from our film today.  Kudos to Sylvia Fine?  To Mr. Goldwyn for originally getting him on The Big Screen?  To Panama & Frank?  To Mr. Kaye himself for being able to step-up and perform (and make the bumbled trip look suave)? 

Yay, verily, yay.

After all, maybe it’s not to whom we say thank you, but -- from Kaye’s “premiere” in 1944 through the next four decades -- we can.

 I don't often do this, but I have to here.  That is, include a photo besides the one-sheet.  This one of our Sherlock Holmes and Jessica Fletcher in the Studio Commissaary while shooting Court Jester.  And, to my wife Diana's credit for noticing, that's Dame Angela Lansbury enjoying a cheeseburger and fries.  God bless her.  

            Up next?  To finish off our “Danny Kaye Top 5," one of the holiday classics:  White Christmas.

15 February, 2014

Wonder Man

         Aaaaand we’re back. 

            It’s 1945.  World War II is coming to an end.  By June, when today’s film is released, The Yalta Conference between Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt has been held (discussing Europe's post-war reorganization, but eventually divided by the eminent Cold War);  and Roosevelt dies, replaced by Harry Truman.  Adolph Hitler commits suicide and V-E Day (Victory in Europe) is declared.  Though it would be months before the Atomic Bombs are dropped on Japan – all but declaring V-J Day (Victory in Japan;  and it’s this day that sparked that famous photo of the sailor kissing his girl in Times Square) – by the end of the year, one of the bloodiest battles in the world would finally be over, and people could breathe again.
            Why the brief history reminder?  Because, remember class, timing greatly affects art.  As I wrote in the Bob Hope Top 5, the Road To Utopia release was pushed two years.  Possibly because of Crosby’s Going My Way but, more probably, because the studios wanted to get out their lineup of war-related movies.  With the war coming to an end, they needed to get those out first.  A comedy could wait.  (The same can be said for the re-work-on and pushed release of the Bogart-Bacall classic The Big Sleep.)  So the next Danny Kaye film?  It’s no surprise that there’s no war in it, and that it’s perhaps the wackiest of the Kaye oeuvre.  After the huge success of his first feature, audiences were ready to inhale as much Kaye as they could get.  And by mid-1945, the dark cloud of The War slowly dissipating, Samuel Goldwyn knew it was time to give it to them. 

So far in this Top 5 Retrospective of Danny Kaye, we have The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and Up In Arms.  Now, ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your pint of Prospect Park and get ready for:

Wonder Man (1945)
            w Don Hartman & Melville Shavelson and Philip Rapp
                adapted by Jack Jevne and Eddie Moran
                from an Original Story by Arthur Sheekman
            d Bruce Humberstone

            Danny Kaye indeed plays a dual role here, that of estranged twin brothers.  One is Buster Dingle, better known as “Buzzy Bellew,” the goofy headliner at The Pelican Club, a classy hotspot.  The other is Edwin Dingle, Buster’s polar opposite, a quiet genius whose world is his library.

Well, Buster becomes witness to a mob murder by "Ten Grand" Jackson (Steve Cochran in his film debut) and Buster's promptly murdered himself.  He comes back as a ghost, calling on his long-lost brother to help bring “Ten Grand” to justice.  As a result, the shy Edwin must take Buster's place until after his testimony is given.

But!  Edwin now has to balance his once quiet world with being thrown into his brother’s over-the-top one.  There’s needing to perform at the club – after all, the bad guys need to still think Buster's alive – but then there’s Madge (Vera-Ellen in her film debut) who’s dating Buster, and Ellen (Virginia Mayo) who we want to date Edwin.  Not to mention “Ten Grand’s” boys who can’t understand how Buster could still be alive, when they dumped him in the lake!  Guess they better finish the job.

In the end, Edwin fights his way to The Opera where the District Attorney is.  Of course, the only safe place for him is on stage, where he has to “perform” the testimony (one of the better numbers in the picture).  All’s well that ends well – for Buster and Edwin – and we wholly believe our heroes live happily ever after.  Ellen:  “Will we ever really be free of Buster?”  Edwin:  “I guess there will always be a little Buster inside of me.”  And that’s just fine with us all.

              In his original New York Times Review (9 June, 1945), Bosley Crowther wrote, in part:

“Danny Kaye and Samuel Goldwyn are not to be mistaken for a shrinking violet.  And so, when the public shouted "Bravo!" at Mr. Kaye's first starring film, Up in Arms, it was rather to be expected that he—and Mr. Goldwyn—would be back. That Kaye is—and now he's brought along his brother—in Mr. Goldwyn's latest picture, Wonder Man.

Mr. Goldwyn has concocted a wholesale, complete and exhaustive demonstration of Mr. Kaye.  There is Mr. Kaye playing a flamboyant and erratic entertainer in a nightclub and also playing his twin brother;  a solemn, bespectacled bookworm.  There is Mr. Kaye 1 getting bumped off by some underworld characters, and there is Mr. Kaye 2 being haunted by his brother's frolicsome ghost.  There is Mr. Kaye 2 trying desperately to fill his dead brother's shoes while the latter, as an ectoplasmic prompter, kids around gleefully.  And finally there is Mr. Kaye (both of him) running joyfully away with the show.

The tremendously talented [Kaye] manages to give an exhibition of most everything he can do.  And all of it is amusing.  He chatters and cracks jokes winningly, races about in mad confusion and sings songs like something quite mad.  Best of his acrobatic song-fests are a take-off of an asthmatic gent trying to sing "Otchi Tchorniya" and a wild end-performance at The Opera.

There are stretches of tedium in the middle (Mr. Kaye's writers nodded now and then).  But the idea is right for this rare cut-up and he whirls it around both of his heads.”
A couple of things of interest here.  One – much like his Up In Arms review – he liked it, but also found the story a little “eh.”  Two, he makes specific mention of the two Mr. Kayes, which would weave in and out of the entertainer’s life for much of the rest of his career.  In this, he plays two roles, in Mitty he daydreams himself as several, and in Court Jester he’s magically switched from goofy to gallant with but a snap of a finger (a very funny running sequence;  and we’ll get there in that review).

            The story thing I get.  I brought up the same conundrum in my Up In Arms Write Up and I think it holds here as well (demurring Story for showcasing Mr. Kaye).  I also think it stands next to what I said about when things are released.  As much as the studios wanted to get their backlog of war-related movies out, I think Mr. Goldwyn wanted to get this non war-related movie out and, perhaps, again, it was more significant – timely? – to showcasing why the audience wanted to be there:  the take-me-away-from-it-all silliness of Danny Kaye.
            And I do, as well, stand by this being the wackiest of his movies, certainly his early work.  (Though Kaye would always be on the silly side, including a wonderful turn as a Dentist in a 1986 episode of The Cosby Show.  Watch there as the consummate professional still hits it out of the park.  And watch Bill Cosby – no slouch himself – who can’t help – even as the cameras roll – marvel at the man.  But I digress.)  Some of the moments in our movie today border a little too wacky, for me anyway.  I love the first time the two brothers meet in the park – and there’s some amazing visual effect work there, which we’ll touch-on in a bit – but by the time he gets to swinging in the tree to “Rock A Bye Birdie,” it borders too much.  Likewise, when he’s on the phone with Ellen and pretends to be in a pet shop.  Too much?  Well, to each his own.

I don’t want to belabor Story here more than we already have.  Is it good?  Does it work?  Does it work as a Danny Kaye vehicle?  Overall, yes.  But one plot point I do love and want to bring up is the moment we meet Buster as he comes in to the nightclub.  He immediately puts on a silly act – that’s who he is – but what’s so great about it is everyone’s accustomed to how wacky he is, so no one thinks much of it.  So when Edwin has to pretend to be him later, and is so far out of his element but trying his best, floundering at being the suave entertainer, again, everyone just thinks it’s "Buster being Buster."  (And, again, how great Mr. Kaye is bouncing between the two brothers.)

What else?  

How about --  boy did I have a crush on her growing up -- Miss Virginia Mayo.  Interestingly, she started as A Goldwyn Girl (you can see her -- uncredited -- in Up In Arms) and would star alongside Kaye in Wonder Man and The Secret Life Of Secret Mitty and A Song Is Born.  But she was a hell of an actress -- a hell of a dame -- in her own right.  If you haven't seen her dramatic work -- White Heat with James Cagney, Captain Horatio Hornblower with Gregory Peck, The Best Years Of Our Lives with Dana Andrews et al and she was Paul Newman's first leading lady in The Silver Chalice -- please do yourself a favor and look 'em up.  (On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting her at the 1993 Lone Pine Film Festival -- she shot Along The Great Divide there with Kirk Douglas -- and of course I had to bring up my favorites.  She was surprised this eighteen year old kid had even heard of them!  I said I loved them.  And she smiled.)  

And we must touch on those amazing visual effects.  First and foremost, with as comfortable as we the audience have become in this department, please keep in mind we’re watching effects done in 1945.  Are they “perfect?”  (That is, as seamless as we’re accustomed to today?)  No.  But it was seventy years ago.  [For that matter, rewatch King Kong (1933).  That was only eighty years ago.  And if you’re not appropriately impressed, well …]  Sure, there’s the easy(ier) stuff like his standing in the middle of the cement in the park or the “lean overs,” but take a special look at the scene where Buster – by this time a ghost, remember – is sitting at the bar trying to pickup the glass and his hands go right through it.  And we see his hands go right through it.  Not just a wipe, it was matted.  No wonder the film – yep – won The Academy Award.

And our Supporting players.  First there’s Vera-Ellen (again, in her film debut).  She was only twenty-four when Mr. Goldwyn plucked her off a Broadway stage for Wonder Man.  Over the next twenty-five years she’d dance with Gene Kelly (On The Town and please see their “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue” in Words And Music), Fred Astaire (Three Little Words and The Belle Of New York) and Donald O’Connor (Call Me Madam).  And she’d reunite with Kaye in perhaps her most famous role in White Christmas.  Then there’s the always great S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall as the Deli Owner.  Probably best known for Casablanca -- though he’s already popped up in this blog as he appears in Errol Flynn’s San Antonio -- it’s his great role in our film today that gives us the very funny “pint of Prospect Park” bit;  and I’ll leave discovering that gem up to you.  Then there’s our District Attorney, played by Otto Kruger.  For you Noir fans out there, yep, that’s Jules Amthor from Murder My Sweet.  As the Assistant District Attorney?  Richard Lane.  Yep, for you Boston Blackie fans, that's Inspector Farraday.  The sailor in the park?  That’s Huntz Hall, one of the original Dead End Kids.  Oh!  And did you recognize the lady bothering Edwin in the library?  None other than Natalie Shafer, Lovey Howell on Gilligan’s Island.

While we’re here, we might as well touch on our Behind-The Scenes.  In the Writers’ Room, there’s Don Hartman, who we’ve touched on before, then Melville Shavelson, who would work with Mr. Kaye again in The Five Pennies (which Shavelson Scripted and Directed) and The Seven Little Foys with Bob Hope (which has the must-see number of Mr. Hope and none other than James Cagney dancing together).  Philip Rapp would reteam with Kaye on The Inspector General.  Jack Jevne started his career in a 1919 Silent and over the next thirty-seven years would touch eighty-seven films.  Eddie Moran started in 1923 and is probably best known for his work on the Topper series.  And our Director this time out?  Bruce Humberstone started in 1924 and is probably best known for his work on the -- wait for this twist from our film today -- Charlie Chan and Tarzan series.  So, as I say, keep up on your cross-referencing;  it’s wonderfully surprising what you’ll find.

In wrapping up, I thought I’d pull clips from a few recent reviews (between 2002 & 2009, when two of the DVD versions were released).  As I mentioned in the Mitty Review – how exciting it was that so much time and talent went into getting that remade – I’m as excited to see today’s audiences still thrilled by Wonder Man

“This is one of my all time favorite movies. The music is lively and the antics are purely classic Kaye. This is a must see for anyone who loves musicals and comedy. There are some great character actors in this piece and ordering potato salad has never been so silly.

Wonder Man has some of the finest moments of pure anarchic ad-libbing and timing you will ever get to see after The Marx Brothers.”
“I consider [Kaye] to be the second funniest redhead in showbiz (and do I have to mention who the funniest is?).  He comes across as this warm and gentle guy with massive comedic and musical gifts … always exhibited a flair for funny facial expressions ... introduced songs rife with glib, rapid-fire double-speak … and was a natural at physical comedy.  With the success of his first starring role in the 1944 feature Up In Arms, the powers-that-be in Hollywood couldn't wait to throw Danny Kaye back into the public consciousness.  So, a year later, Kaye's second feature film Wonder Man was released.  His wife Sylvia Fine, throughout Kaye’s career, has excelled in writing specialty lyrics and songs which ideally suited his talents for mimicry and double speak.  She contributes here with "Bali Boogie" and adapts the Russian song "Otchi Tchorniya" to Danny Kaye's particular brand of musical mayhem.  To quote several of the extras in this film: "What a guy."”

Going back (just briefly) to the timing of this picture, I’ll share the last card that appears in the credits.  Because it was at Danny Kaye’s personal request that he and Mr. Goldwyn make this gesture.

            "This is overseas program no. 913 to Families and Friends of Servicemen and Women:  Pictures exhibited in this theatre are given to the armed forces in combat areas around the world. WAR ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE MOTION PICTURE INDUSTRY."

            Thank you, Danny.

            Up next?  We go back to Medieval Times to fight Sherlock Holmes and fall in love with Jessica Fletcher in The Court Jester!