Friday, September 28, 2012

The Paramount Centennial Blogathon/Camp & Cult Blogathon: The Court Jester (1956)

No doubt you’re already pointing fingers and saying: “Hey!  He’s written one essay for two blogathons…cheater!”  Well, guilty as charged—this piece is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to The Paramount Centennial Blogathon, being hosted by Angela at The Hollywood Revue from September 27-28…and it’s also the fourth and last entry submitted to my BBFF Stacia’s Camp and Cult Blogathon at She Blogged by Night, held from September 17-28.  It’s a Paramount picture…and its “cult” status will be explained in the course of the essay.

From January 1992 to June 2000, I lived in Morgantown, WV—a period of time I jokingly refer to often on the blog as “my years in exile.”  During that time, I made quite a few solid friendships—none more solid-er than with a group of students attending WVU (West Virginia University) whom I met, one by one, while playing NTN Trivia at the local BW3 (Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck—though the restaurant chain goes by Buffalo Wild Wings now).  Our “trivia tournaments” gradually gave way to our spending time together in other leisure pursuits: raucous parties, good and bad movies, etc.  Without getting too sloppy and sentimental about it, they were some of the best times of my life.

The members of the group, with one or two exceptions, were a lot younger than I—to give you an idea of the age discrepancy, several of them begged me to go with them to see Star Wars when it was re-released to theaters in 1997.  My argument to Bill, one of those friends, was “I already saw this movie the first time in 1977—in fact, I saw it three times.”

“I didn’t,” he replied, looking at me strangely.  “That was the year I was born.”  (So I ended up going along, not only seeing Star Wars a fourth time in the theater but also The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi—the last one a movie I swore I’d never, ever watch again, but you do those sort of things for friendship.)

Since my tastes have always run toward older movies, I was considered kind of freakish by my friends…but this kind of came in handy during trivia games, since I knew a lot of the older films and directors and they did not.  One night, for reasons I don’t quite remember, one of my comrades made a statement after we successfully answered a question and then, turning to me, asked:  “Get it?”

“Got it,” I replied.  “Good,” he responded, and then we both shared a laugh at us both knowing the film reference.  “That movie’s a little bit beyond your jurisdiction,” I teased him, but he insisted “I love The Court Jester!”  Bowled over by this cinematic common ground, I brought my VHS copy of the film with me to a video night we had planned that next weekend, where it was a big hit.  (Even the lone dissenter who hadn’t wanted to watch it admitted afterward that it was a very entertaining film.)

In medieval England, a usurper to the throne named Roderick I (Cecil Parker)—known by his subjects as “Roderick the Tyrant”—worries constantly about the threat of being overthrown…and he has every reason to be concerned.  Roderick slaughtered the royal family to become king, but is unaware that a survivor, an infant, is being cared for by a group of forest rebels whose leader (Edward Ashley) is known as The Black Fox.  The infant king, identified as the legitimate ruler due to a royal birthmark on his royal backside (a flower known as “the purple pimpernel”), is cared for by Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye), a ex-carnival performer who joined the rebel forces to fight Roderick’s tyranny but has wound up instead entertaining the other members of the rebellion and changing His Majesty’s didies.

One of King Roderick’s men has reported to his sovereign the location of the rebels in the forest, so steps are quickly enacted to spirit the infant to safety—Hawkins disguises himself as an elderly wine merchant, and is accompanied by Captain Jean (Glynis Johns), who poses as his deaf-mute daughter.  The two of them are stopped by Roderick’s guards as they make their way toward an abbey, and successfully fool them with their masquerade.  Seeking shelter from inclement weather in a woodman’s cottage, Jean suggests to Hawkins that their struggle against tyranny might come to a sooner end if only they could infiltrate the castle by means of a secret passageway that starts in the forest…but to do so, they will need to swipe the key (the passageway is locked at both ends) by getting access to Roderick’s chambers.  Their daring plan gets underway when they make the acquaintance of Giacomo (John Carradine)—“King of Jesters, and Jester of Kings”—who stops by the cottage to get out of the rain, and is quickly waylaid by Jean and Hawkins.  Hawkins’ assignment is to impersonate Giacomo, gaining Roderick’s trust and chambers access…whereupon he will steal the key and set in motion the rebels’ action to dethrone the pretender.

Things do not go quite as planned.  Jean and the infant (who is hidden in a basket stored in a false wine cask) are captured by Roderick’s guards, ordered by their king to round up the fairest wenches in the kingdom.  Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone), one of Roderick’s advisors, has suggested to Roderick that an alliance with Sir Griswold of MacElwain (Robert Middleton) be forged in order to stave off any attack by the Black Fox and the band of rebels.  (The alliance, in this particular instance, will be the wedded union of Griswold and Roderick’s daughter, Princess Gwendolyn [Angela Lansbury]—who’s none too receptive about the merger, by the way.)  Ravenhurst doesn’t really desire an alliance with Griswold—he agrees to it only to humor the king and the lords who did suggest the arrangement, Brockhurst (Alan Napier), Finsdale (Lewis Martin) and Pertwee (Patrick Aherne).  These three men will be disposed of by an assassin that Ravenhurst has hired through a third party…said assassin answering to “Giacomo.”

Hawkins-as-Giacomo arrives at the castle, bewildered by several events.  He’s been told to contact a confederate inside the walls—a hostler named Fergus (Noel Drayton)—but mistakenly assumes that Ravenhurst is his contact, on the basis of Ravenhurst’s nod to him (which has to do with the assassination he’s been hired to carry out).  He also finds himself hypnotized by the evil Griselda (Mildred Natwick), a witch in Gwendolyn’s employ who tells her mistress that Giacomo is her “true love” to save her from certain death (Gwen has no desire to marry Griswold, and plans on taking Griselda out with her in a suicide attempt)—Griselda convinces Hawkins that he’s “bewitched” by the princess and will pledge his heart to win her love.  In his trance, he manages to lose the secret passage key that Jean swiped from Roderick’s chambers (Roderick now wears it for safekeeping on his regal robes), arrange to spirit Gwendolyn away before the arrival of Griswold and promise Ravenhurst that he will dispose of Brockhurst, Finsdale and Pertwee. 

Clearly, this is going to take some work…but as Hawkins informs us in the song sung during the opening credits: “What starts like a scary tale ends like a fairy tale…and life couldn’t possibly better be!”

To simply label Danny Kaye as a comedian would do him a disservice.  He could be funny, and he appeared in many funny films…but he was so multi-talented (singer, actor, dancer, etc.) that he’s a walking definition of the term “entertainer.”  A Borscht Belt performer who, though he started making comedy shorts for Educational Pictures in the mid 1930s, wouldn’t achieve true motion picture stardom until after triumphing on Broadway in such hits as Lady in the Dark and Let’s Face It, Kaye signed a contract with independent producer Samuel Goldwyn in the 1940s and appeared in a hit string of musical comedies like Up in Arms (a remake of Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee!), The Kid from Brooklyn (a remake of Harold Lloyd’s The Milky Way) and A Song is Born (a remake of the Gary Cooper-Barbara Stanwyck comedy Ball of Fire).  (Okay, not all his vehicles were remakes—he also starred in Wonder Man and an adaptation of James Thurber’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, both of which co-starred Virginia Mayo).

Continued success in film comedies like The Inspector General, On the Riviera (another remake, this one of Folies Bergère and That Night in Rio) and Knock on Wood was a dress rehearsal for what I think (as do many others) is Kaye’s finest picture, The Court Jester (1956).  Written, directed and produced by the team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama (who also did the same duty on Kaye’s Knock on Wood), the spoof on sword-and-sorcery films cost a lavish $4 million to make, making it the most expensive film comedy produced at the time.

And…it tanked at the box office.  Hard to believe, I know—but the picture only brought in 2.2 million in receipts.  Yet it would later become a television favorite, which is where I saw it…and I’m guessing my Morgantown friends did as well.  Come to think of it, one of those friends and I made a weekend trip to Maryland at the end of 1999 (for a New Year’s celebration) and made arrangements to stay with sister Debbie and her husband Craige.  We ended up watching the movie when we came across it on one of the cable stations.

I think The Court Jester is one of filmdom’s most perfect comedies.  There’s not one bit of footage in the film that goes to waste, every situation and every event is securely in place like brick-and-mortar, eventually leading up to an important part of the plot.  As a rule, I’m not all that wild about musical comedies—I always think of the classic Groucho line in Horse Feathers when his brother Chico starts his piano solo: “I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you can’t go into the lobby for a smoke till this all blows over”—but all the songs and specialty numbers work; they compliment the comedy rather than overpower it.  The songs—written by Mrs. Kaye, Sylvia Fine, and Sammy Cahn—include such gems as “The Maladjusted Jester” (“An unemployed jester is nobody’s fool”) and the bouncy title tune, “Life Could Not Better Be.”

And of course, there’s that marvelous comic patter (“Get it?  Got it.  Good.”), culminating with the classic “Pellet with the Poison” sequence.   It’s not like it’s a new routine—variations of it appeared earlier in films like Eddie Cantor’s Roman Scandals and both Bob Hope vehicles Never Say Die and The Paleface—but it became so identified with Danny Kaye that his daughter Dena once commented complete strangers would come up to her famous dad and quote it verbatim.  My favorite part of the routine has Kaye’s Hawkins having difficulty remembering that “the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle…the chalice from the palace has the brew which is true.”  “It’s so easy I can say it,” Jean tells him.  “Well, then you fight him,” snaps Hawkins without missing a beat.

The Court Jester is the movie that made me a Glynis Johns devotee, and even though I was already a huge fan of Basil Rathbone’s from the Sherlock Holmes films I became even more enamored of his talents due to his first-rate villainy (it works because he plays it perfectly straight) in the film.  Bas, who was certainly no slouch when it came to fencing, unfortunately had to let the fight choreographer do most of the heavy lifting in his hilarious swashbuckling battle with Kaye because Danny’s movements were so difficult to keep up with (Rathbone was 63 at the time).  The supporting cast in this film—Parker, Lansbury, Natwick, Middleton, Herbert Rudley—is positive perfection; the only blemish is that John Carradine, a longtime TDOY fave, only gets a few minutes of screen time as the jester whom Kaye’s character will be called on to participate.

A week or two back on Facebook, one of my fellow classic film aficionados was making an argument that the Charlie Chaplin classic Modern Times was the perfect film comedy; I am, of course, a huge fan of the film (even though I confess I love City Lights more) but I don’t think I’d quibble with its perfection—and what’s more, there are other comedies that are equally deserving of that status: Keaton’s The General, the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, etc.  But I’d definitely have to clear some brush to make sure The Court Jester was listed near the top.  It’s one of the first films I purchased on DVD when I finally got a player in 1999, and every time I slip it into the player I know I’m guaranteed to be entertained and amused during its 101-minute running time.  Life couldn’t possibly better be.


DorianTB said...

Ivan, as I've surely mentioned in either my blogs or your blogs or both, we of Team Bartilucci madly adore Danny Kaye -- so, considering THE COURT JESTER is rightfully considered a classic these days, I for one an STUNNED that THE COURT JESTER was considered a flop back in its theatrical run! Thanks heavens people appreciate it more now, although if you ask me, it's always helpful to beat the bushes and make sure people are rediscovering THE COURT JESTER in particular and Danny Kaye in general! If I ever have the time and energy again, I just might do something crazy like put together a Danny Kaye Blogathon! Who's with me? Anyway, BRAVO to you for your superb blogpost about one of our favorite Danny Kaye films!

Anonymous said...

I've never seen The Court Jester, but your post has sold me on it! It sounds like a very fun movie, I'll be keeping an eye out for it.

Thank you so much for participating in the Paramount Centennial Blogathon!

Stacia said...

Awesome post, Ivan! Your friends sound like a great bunch.

While I'm not much of a Danny Kaye fiend, the rest of the actors in this flick, especially Glynnis Johns, make me watch it every time it's on. It's always shocked me that this film flopped at the box office. It's tailor made for a holiday film but wasn't released until January, which might be part of the problem.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

I kind of run hot-and-cold where Kaye is concerned: I enjoy many of his movies, particularly Jester and Knock on Wood (which I think was the first one I ever watched) but I've read more than a few anecdotes from folks who knew him that say despite his good will accomplishments he could be a miserable prick when he wanted to be.

My favorite Kaye story has him and the cast of his radio program finishing a script rehearsal and Danny, apparently not satisfied with the laughs he got in the reading, complains: "Well...I'm the highest-paid straight man in show business."

His head writer, Goodman Ace, never even looks up from his script: "Jack Benny makes three times the money you do."

DorianTB said...

Ivan, I laughed out loud over that riposte Goodman Ace gave Danny Kaye! Plenty of entertainers can be a pain in the derriere to work with for one reason or another, but like I always say in these instances, "I don't want to marry the guy, I just want to watch his movies!" :-)

Vinnie Bartilucci said...

The Wife and I vary slightly when it comes to our favorite Danny Kaye film. As much as she talks about Jester in her comments here, I know that her heart belongs to Walter Mitty, and I cannot argue the point.

For me, as good as Mitty is (and it is), I have to go with Jester. Danny and Sylvia had the same kind of professional relationship as Jim Steinman and Meat Loaf - Danny was never better than when singing her lyrics, and nobody could breathe life into Sylvia's words like Danny could.

Many (OK, most) of Kaye's films have moments of perfection ("POTATO SALAD!"), but Jester runs on all cylinders from the opening credits. The plot is solid, the work with the other actors sparkles, and that sword fight is one of the longest and most technically impressive in film, and is STILL damn hilarious.

And it's just choked with midgets. Usually a crutch for those who can't write good slapstick, here's they're made heroes by their desire to help, and being able to come to the rescue in a (literal) tight spot.

Stacia said...

YES. I am working "Jack Benny makes three times the money you do" into everyday conversation.

David Koenig said...

Great to see folks still talking about -- and still enjoying -- "The Court Jester" and Danny Kaye. Gives me hope that (Warning: Shameless Plug Ahead) there's a market out there for my upcoming book, "Danny Kaye: King of Jesters"!

Anonymous said...

My little bro loves this film. And I'm always sold on the "Get it? Got it. Good" thing. And the "Chalice from the Palace, and the Flagon with the Dragon" gag.. And did you know Rathbone said Kaye was a brilliant natural swordsman and had much quicker reflexes than he did himself.