The Court Jester
1955 • 101 minutes • Paramount Pictures
Alone among my favorite movies, A Knight’s Tale occupies a unique niche. It’s a medieval(ish)-set romp that uses its setting more as an excuse to play merrily with anachronism for comedic effect than any attempts to mimic historical truth. (Although it’s adorable that it’s occasionally dinged for having a lady blacksmith—despite the fact that she’s a widow who took over the family business, like a lot of women in the Middle Ages.) I have often searched in vain for films that do the same (this is why I watched Virgin Territory), usually after I watch A Knight’s Tale, but I usually just put in A Knight’s Tale again after giving up. (Oh, no, what a hardship.) It’s a microniche that endlessly delights me, but emphasis must be placed on its micro nature.
I just glanced back at my copious notes to figure out where I stumbled across The Court Jester. I distinctly remember it being an AV Club Watch This recommendation inspired by Galavant, but I’m only turning up a Scenic Routes column about the “the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle” scene. Therefore, we can only conclude that The Court Jester appeared to me in a very good dream, because it’s the only other film I’ve seen that satisfies the same itch A Knight’s Tale does. (Well, it does lack a soundtrack completely composed of ‘70s songs. Nobody’s perfect!)
From the opening credits, it becomes very clear that The Court Jester is a remarkably good-hearted, winking comedy. Star Danny Kaye sings “Life Could Not Better Be” while conducting and commenting on the credits, especially when it comes to Basil Rathbone’s creepy credit. The sweetness continues into the film proper, where we find the imposter King Roderick on the throne of England, while the true king, far too young to rule, is protected by the Black Fox and his merry band. Ex-carnival entertainer Hubert Hawkins yearns for adventure, but is assigned, alongside Captain Jean, to transport the baby to safety. Along the way, though, they encounter Giacomo, the King of the Jesters, on his way to King Roderick’s castle. Seeing an opportunity, Hawkins takes Giacomo’s place to gain entry to the castle. Once there, however, it turns out that Giacomo is also a master assassin, hired by Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone, of course), to kill King Roderick. Plus, the princess is madly in love with Giacomo, largely because she keeps threatening her lady’s maid if her true love doesn’t appear. Good thing her lady’s maid is a powerful witch. Let the comedy of errors commence.
“Darling” is the word that keeps popping into my head when it comes to this movie. It’s so sweet and silly that it’s effervescently daffy. A lot of this comes from Kaye himself with his warm, charming, and unassuming charisma. Having never seen White Christmas (I was raised by French wolves who never turned on TCM), The Court Jester was my first introduction, and he’s simply wonderful. Much of the film, obviously, plays to his strengths: alternating dizzily fast between the bewildered but nimble in a pinch Hawkins and the witch-induced dashing Giacomo in a wooing scene, playing to big crowds, simply reacting, and negotiating the nimble and deliriously funny wordplay of both the writers and songwriter Sylvia Fine. (It probably helps that I love bad jokes, so jokes like “It comes from the Italian court… what better place for courting Italians” play great to this audience.)
But the film doesn’t simply rest on Kaye. Everybody else rises to the occasion with glorious aplomb. The graceful Glynis Johns makes Jean largely the idealistic but pragmatic straight woman to Hawkins, but she gets a scene where she fights off Roderick’s amorous advances by claiming both an outlandish and incredibly infectious disease and her own “desire” for him. And Jean and Hawkins are incredibly cute together as a couple. A young Angela Lansbury plays Princess Gwendolyn to the hilt as a haughty, spoiled woman, and Rathsbone, of course, is perfect. Most of his comedy simply comes from such a clearly villainous and intelligent man mistaking Hawkins’ incompetence for cunning.
It keeps its inspired pace up through the whole film, even as it centers on increasingly silly But none of it could really be replaced, especially Hawkins’ knighting. Faced with a long knighting process, Roderick orders it sped up—and sped up it is, including the intricate march. It’s so simple but so absurd that it’s just plain funny. While it flopped on its original theatrical release, it’s very clear to see why The Court Jester has had such a long life on television and home video. What an absolute treat.
I watched this film on Amazon Streaming.