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.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article about one of my all-time favorite movies. Thank you. I don't know if we are related, but reading some of your blog we certainly like many of the same things! (Thomas Holland)