Danny Kaye excels as... The Court Jester (1956)

When it comes to the film careers of many comedians, things can be rather hit or miss. Performers like Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, and Red Skelton have great films, but it can seem like overall, the bad films outweigh the good. It can take years for their filmographies to get more respect or admiration. I think some, like Danny Kaye, are still waiting. To me, Kaye's movies are always a lot of fun and nowhere is that more evident than in The Court Jester. Arguably Kaye's best picture, The Court Jester is practically perfect in every way.

Although the film is a comedy with a handful of musical performances by Kaye, people rarely call The Court Jester a musical. (The same could be said for quite a few of Kaye's films actually, which is a little weird. Is it because 80% of the time Kaye is the only one doing the musical numbers?) For TCJ's routines, Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine were hired as co-writers. The wife of Kaye from 1940 until his death in 1987, Fine often wrote material for her husband in addition to helping manage his career. Despite their estranged relationship, Fine was brilliant and knew exactly how to best display Kaye's artistry. She wrote some of his most famous work, including "Anatole of Paris" from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Hoping to show Hollywood what Kaye was capable of, Dena Productions was formed. As TCM notes, "The feeling that film audiences had yet to see the 'real' Danny Kaye was the motivation behind establishing Dena Productions, a venture between Kaye, director Norman Panama, and writer Melvin Frank. Named after Kaye's daughter and funded by Paramount Pictures, Dena Productions sought to 'prove that films can capture the quality of spontaneity that Kaye reveals onstage to an audience.' Their first effort, Knock on Wood (1954), contained promising glimpses of the company's mission, but it wasn't until the second try that Kaye would have his due." Written and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, TCJ is a skillfully rendered comedic masterpiece with exceptional talent in front of and behind the camera.

Part of that talent is the sparkling cast. Angela Lansbury and Basil Rathbone (pictured above in the greatest commissary shot ever taken) are wonderfully tough and mischievous. Glynis Johns is nobody's damsel in distress. Cecil Parker is perfection as the king, and Mildred Natwick is splendid as Lansbury's maid. Although he is obviously the film's star, Kaye blends seamlessly into this group and the result is a stronger, funnier film. Many were aware of this, including Lansbury, who said "Danny wasn't an ensemble player -- he was the one around whom everyone danced, and we all dressed to him." Surprisingly, that didn't translate to tension on the set as it often did on Kaye's films. Lansbury recounted that "[w]e never stopped laughing. There was none of that moodiness he could have elsewhere, that abruptness, ignoring people. If something interested him, sparked him, he came alive. The minute that was over, he was closed for business, which I think is true of many of the great comic performers. They are constantly out to lunch. Where they are, I don't know."

From the minute the film started, I fell in love. Kaye appears in full jester gear singing "Life Could Not Better Be," a meta commentary on the opening credits. The best part is when Basil Rathbone's name keeps popping up in a slanted, villainous font. Right away we know what kind of movie we're in for. Our first scene is terribly familiar: the narrator introduces us to King Roderick (Parker), the evil usurper who slayed the royal family to ascend to the throne. The only survivor of this brutality was a baby with the royal
birthmark, a purple pimpernel, on its posterior. For now, the child is safely hidden in the woods with a gang of outlaws headed by the Black Fox. The king's closest advisor, Lord Ravenhurst (Rathbone), assures his master that there is no way the child could have survived. Still, the king and his entourage fear that the Black Fox will bring about an uprising and they discuss forging an alliance with Sir Griswold of MacElwain so they can use his men to help stop the rebels. What could Sir Griswold want in return? Cut
to the king's gorgeous daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Lansbury). Gwendolyn absolutely refuses because she believes Griselda (Natwick), her maid and a witch, who predicts that the princess's dream man will arrive at the castle any moment now to sweep her away. Ravenhurst is against the marriage too because he could lose his position as the king's right-hand man.

In the forest, we meet Kaye, who is seemingly the man they call the Black Fox. With a swirling cape and a black mask, Kaye brags about how the king and his people will never figure out who the Fox is as suddenly there are multiple Foxes who then multiply even more when it is revealed that they are actually little people. "Outfox the Fox" is tons of fun, especially when you first see it. You get all of these little surprises -- particularly when the real Black Fox shows up. That's right, in this film, Kaye is more Bob Hope
than Errol Flynn (with his own idiosyncrasies, of course). Our hero is really ex-carnival entertainer Hubert Hawkins, who is in charge of keeping the Fox's gang in good spirits. As the Fox is reprimanding Hawkins for borrowing his costume again, one of the Fox's captains, Jean (Johns), comes swinging in. She reminds the men that is time to greet the new recruits, which shows us Hawkins's other job: revealing the baby's birthmark to the recruits so they know that they are fighting for the true heir to the throne. Hawkins has grown restless with this kind of work, deeming it too feminine (seriously, man?) -- he wants to be in the nitty gritty and fight. He'll soon get his chance when the gang gets the news that they must move to avoid being found by the king.

Choosing to split up, Hawkins and Jean are in charge of transporting the baby. Pretending to be wine merchants, they place him in an empty barrel and put an old man disguise on Hawkins. When they are stopped by a few guards, they try to make themselves as annoying as possible. Hawkins feigns a vicious cough and bad hearing; Jean is his deaf and mute granddaughter who can understand only him and only by putting her fingers on his lips. She then responds through nonsensical hand gestures. You can see their hilarious ruse and how well it works here.
Having fooled the guards, Hawkins and Jean take shelter at a hut when a storm blows in. While Jean sets up their bedding, Hawkins sings the lullaby "I'll Take You Dreaming" to the baby. The tenderness and sincerity of Hawkins softens Jean, and basically anyone else who has a heart. That's part of why I love Kaye so much -- he could be so darling and sweet. With only one dry bed in the place, Hawkins and Jean are forced to share, but neither really seems to mind. She even suggests that there would be more room
if he tucked his arm under her head. (Clever gal.) Jean reluctantly admits that although she is tough on everyone, she still has feelings. She also talks about her father and how he taught her everything she knows about fighting and survival. It may not be a very romantic conversation, but it does become rather steamy when Jean and Hawkins kiss. Jean, however, pulls away and says they must focus on defeating King Roderick. If only they could infiltrate the castle... A few men could overthrow the place within hours due to a secret passage, but it is locked and the key is
in the king's possession. The rebels need someone to get into the king's chambers and find that key. Just then, a man comes in asking for shelter. He is Giacomo (John Carradine), a new jester en route to the castle. Hawkins and Jean immediately see an opportunity, but it is Jean who puts it into action. After knocking out Giacomo, she tells Hawkins to take the jester's place. Once he has the key, he needs to find the rebels' inside man at the castle by whistling a specific melody. Hawkins will understand why their spy
                                                                                can't steal the key himself when he sees him.

At the castle, the king is fuming that the child escaped. He plans to go ahead with Gwendolyn and Griswold's wedding, despite his daughter's fury. Ravenhurst remarks that he has hired Giacomo as entertainment for the occasion. This is merely a deception, though. Ravenhurst confides to his sidekick Sir Locksley that Giacomo is actually an assassin. (Side note: Locksley's name may seem familiar to you. Robin Hood's real name was Sir Robin of Locksley. Witty, no?) Meanwhile, Hawkins is on his way to the castle and
Jean is headed towards an abbey to keep the baby safe. Unfortunately, she is stopped by guards who have orders to bring every fair lady to the court for the upcoming tournament. Upon her arrival, Jean makes contact with the rebels' spy, Fergus, who is a lowly servant (and thus unable to access the king's rooms without lots of suspicion). They're able to hide the baby before Jean is dragged away.

Up in Gwendolyn's room, things are looking dire for Griselda. With Gwendolyn's true love still nowhere to be seen, the princess threatens death to her maid, demonstrating that the king isn't the only cruel one in this family. Fumbling to save herself, Griselda hears Hawkins singing as he pulls up to the castle and points to him as Gwendolyn's savior. The princess instantly finds him attractive and warns Griselda that if she is wrong, she will die by Gwendolyn's own hand. Down below, Hawkins goes around
singing "My Heart Knows a Lovely Song," which incorporates the secret whistle to find Fergus. When he hears someone repeating the call, Hawkins turns to see Ravenhurst rather than Fergus. Ravenhurst's conspiratorial nod confirms for him that this is his man. Their exchange is absolutely priceless ("Get it?" "Got it." "Good."). This script is just filled to the brim with witty lines, alliteration, and tongue twisters that became exacerbated to the point of maximum silliness. When introduced to the king, Hawkins
is asked about a duchess Giacomo should know of, so he spins a dramatic tale that is liable to put anyone's tongue in a complete knot. Delighted at the "incomparable Giacomo," the king invites Hawkins to pick one of the wenches to be the king's companion, leading to this subtly racy dialogue:

King: "I trust the jester's reputation is based upon many years of, er, accomplishment?"
Hawkins: "Why do you think they call me 'incomparable,' sir? Get it?"
King: "Got it."
Hawkins: "Good."
*both laugh at the same time in the exact same way*

You can watch this hysterical scene here.

Later in Hawkins's room, Fergus sneaks in and tries to tell him who he is, but Hawkins is dismissive. When Griselda enters, Fergus hides behind a curtain and watches as she hypnotizes Hawkins into believing that he is Gwendolyn's knight in shining armor. Kaye's skill is brilliant as his character becomes molded by the witch:

"You are the figure of romance, the spirit of action..."

"...but at the same time humble and tender."

"You're a man of iron..."

"...with the soul of a poet."

"Adventurous, gay..."

"...but with a brooding melancholy!"

"And above all, you must show passion!"

Elsewhere, Jean tiptoes into the king's chamber and easily finds the passageway key. Spotting Hawkins in the hallway, she discounts his odd behavior as staying in character and gives him the key. When the king comes upon them, he believes that Jean is the maiden that Hawkins has picked for him and she is whisked off to be prepared for that evening's festivities. In Don Juan mode, Hawkins swings into Gwendolyn's room and quickly woos her. Seeing that he has the passageway key, she surmises that he has planned for them to rendezvous. They agree to meet at midnight
and she keeps the key. Watch the scene here. The lovers' reverie is interrupted when the king knocks on the door. Gwendolyn tries to hide Hawkins, but when he refuses, she snaps her fingers at him, unknowingly bringing him out of Griselda's spell. As Gwendolyn and her father discuss her impending marriage, they begin snapping their fingers at each other to emphasize their points, causing Hawkins to go in and out of his hypnotic state constantly. Regrettably, the king discovers the passageway key and realizes
that his daughter was attempting to escape. Once he leaves, though,
                 Gwendolyn and Hawkins promise to still meet.

As Hawkins exits the princess's room the way he came, Ravenhurst is insisting to Locksley that "Giacomo" will be arriving to discuss their dastardly plans right as Hawkins swings into the room. Ravenhurst reveals that he wants "Giacomo" to kill fellow lords Brockhurst, Finsdale, and Pertwee because they are his competitors for the king's favor. After those murders are done, Hawkins must take the princess away to stop the wedding from happening. With that all set up, Hawkins returns to his room and
Griselda puts him into a deep sleep that will erase his memory of everything that has just occurred. While roaming the castle, Griselda eavesdrops on Brocklehurst, Finsdale, and Pertwee as they make a pact to ensure that Griswold and Gwendolyn are wed. Knowing this would mean death for her, the witch's wheels start turning.

That evening, Fergus tries to alert Jean about Griselda's hypnosis, but she only has time to tell him to bring the baby to Hawkins. Fresh from his nap, Hawkins is heading to the great hall when he is hit by everything that happened during his hypnotized state. The king shows off Jean in her finery and congratulates Hawkins on selecting such a delectable woman to be his companion; Jean sees that the king has retrieved the key and looks at Hawkins with confusion; Fergus gives Hawkins a basket with the baby hidden inside; Ravenhurst whispers that he hopes their plan is ready; and
Gwendolyn informs him that she arranged horses for their midnight getaway. Although he would rather run and hide, Hawkins is forced to perform for the court. Telegraphing to Jean that the basket he holds contains the baby, he distracts everyone with "The Maladjusted Jester" so she can snatch the basket. For this song, Sylvia Fine was the sole writer and she created the kind of number that Kaye specialized in. Fast, ridiculous, and fun, "The Maladjusted Jester" illustrates Kaye's singular talent while also retaining (some) importance to the plot.

As everyone applauds Hawkins, Griselda poisons the cups of Brockhurst, Finsdale, and Pertwee. When Hawkins proposes a toast to the king, the three men promptly drop dead, impressing Ravenhurst. Things soon turn for our jester, though, when Sir Griswold enters. He has come to accept King Roderick's terms, but Gwendolyn announces that she will not be marrying Griswold because she is in love with "Giacomo." The king orders Hawkins to be executed, but Gwendolyn again throws a wrench in his plan by threatening to commit suicide if any harm comes to her lover. To
make matters worse, Ravenhurst learns from a confidant that Hawkins isn't the real Giacomo. Believing that the jester is actually the Black Fox, Ravenhurst advises the king to have Hawkins knighted so he can duel Griswold. Hawkins would be killed and Gwendolyn would be forced to marry Griswold by the rules of chivalry. What Ravenhurst doesn't tell the king is that he thinks Hawkins will kill Griswold instead. Although it usually takes three years to knight a man, the king has Hawkins put through the
fastest, most ridiculous crash course in order to make him a knight in less than 24 hours. While Hawkins is going through this farce, Jean goes to the king's chambers to once again retrieve the key. This time, however, she has to flirt with the king. The plan works, and when he tries to steal a kiss from her, Jean talks about how her whole family has the scourge but "they say it isn't catching." The king can't recoil fast enough, as you can see here.

At Hawkins's knighting ceremony, Griswold appears to formally challenge him. Jean covertly assures Hawkins that the Black Fox will take his place for the duel so he accepts it. Gwendolyn, meanwhile, issues another grim warning to Griselda: "Remember this... if he dies, you die." To notify the Black Fox of Hawkins's predicament, Jean and Fergus prepare a message to be sent via carrier pigeon. Suspicious of Jean, Ravenhurst and his cohorts see her leave Fergus's quarters and then attack the poor man just as he releases the bird. In the woods, the Black Fox receives the
message, but he has a bigger problem: their end of the passageway has caved in from rocks and there is only room for somebody very small. Remembering Hawkins's carnival friends from the beginning of the film, the Black Fox goes to find them instead of helping Hawkins, reasoning that the cave-in is more important when you look at the bigger picture.

At the jousting tournament, Hawkins and Jean nervously await the Fox. Realizing that he isn't going to show up, they start to say their goodbyes but Griselda tells them she has poisoned one of the cups that will be used for the toast that kicks off the joust.

Griselda: "Listen. I have put a pellet of poison in one of the vessels."
Hawkins: "Which one?"
Griselda: "The one with the figure of a pestle."
Hawkins: "The vessel with the pestle?"
Griselda: "Yes. But you don't want the vessel with the pestle, you want the chalice from the palace!"
Hawkins: "I don't want the vessel with the pestle, I want the chalice from... the what?"
Jean: "The chalice from the palace!"

Kaye's daughter, Dena, has said that this scene was the one fans always recited whenever they met her father. I'll admit it is kind of
hard to watch the scene without repeating the words along with everyone else. As Hawkins tries to memorize this life-saving rhyme, the strangest coincidence happens: a bolt of lightning from an oncoming storm strikes his suit of armor. Because Hawkins is so focused on the rhyme, though, he doesn't realize his suit is now magnetic. On his way to the ring, Griselda informs him that the chalice from the palace was broken and now the poison is in the flagon with the figure of a dragon. One of Griswold's men overhears this and tells his master, causing Griswold and Hawkins
to fight over the correct cup at the toast. The king impatiently foregoes the toast and has the joust begin. The fight starts badly for Hawkins, but because of his magnetic armor, Griswold's weapon becomes stuck to Hawkins and he falls off his horse. Rather than strike the death blow, Hawkins nobly spares Griswold's life. His triumph doesn't last long -- after torturing Fergus, Ravenhurst has discovered that the royal child is somewhere in the castle. The devious lord also accuses Hawkins of being the Black Fox in front of everyone and cites Jean as his accomplice.

At the trial of Jean and Hawkins, Ravenhurst reveals that they have found the baby. However, while he is monologuing (every villain's downfall!), he remains unaware that Hawkins's friends, the little people, have sneaked into the castle and are taking their positions for battle. On Hawkins's signal, they swing the baby to safety and then they attack. The funniest part of this moment is the system that the little people have devised to hoist the unconscious bodies of the king's men up the stairs where Jean then catapults them into the water. You honestly just have to see it for yourself
because I don't even know how to describe it.

Thanks to Jean, the Black Fox and his gang are able to join the battle after she brings up the castle gates. Meanwhile, Ravenhurst forces Hawkins into a duel and this officially becomes the best comedy swashbuckler ever because we all know there is no duel like a Basil Rathbone duel. Still in love with Hawkins, Gwendolyn again sends Griselda to protect him, so she hypnotizes him into thinking that he is the finest swordsman in the world. When it
came to sword fighting, Rathbone was considered to be the best in Hollywood. Because of this, Kaye dutifully studied the man and according to one source, "With his quick reflexes and his extraordinary sense of mime, which enabled him to imitate easily anything seen once, Kaye could outfence Rathbone after a few weeks of instruction." Whether or not that's true, I don't know, but it is wonderful to watch the two men. To make it better, Hawkins is repeatedly pulled in and out of his trance by the snapping of fingers, forcing him to go from suave to silly throughout the fight.
His acts of bravado are amusingly over-the-top, too, such as when he pours himself a drink and sips it while still fending off Ravenhurst's attacks. I also love it when he is finally out from under the spell and all he can do to protect himself is run wildly at Ravenhurst and yell. The sparring comes to an end when Hawkins and Jean are able to catapult Ravenhurst off of the castle. You can watch the whole fight here in this low-quality video, or you can watch the main part of it here in a higher quality.

Inside, the Black Fox is declaring victory when Griswold and his men enter. Griswold calls the Fox a traitor to the crown, but he is proven wrong when Hawkins presents the baby and its pimpernel birthmark. Everyone bows to the child, including King Roderick, and Hawkins sings a reprise of "Life Could Not Better Be" with Jean by his side.

The Court Jester was an expensive film for Paramount to make with a pretty price tag of $4 million. Amazingly enough, the film failed at the box office and wound up only grossing $2.2 million. I can't comprehend how this even happened, but I'm glad that the movie found its audience as the years went on. Everything about this film deserves praise. For one thing, the color photography is simply beautiful. Ray June's cinematography is excellent and the shots of the sea always take my breath away.

Another element that takes my breath away? The divine costumes of Edith Head. Everyone just looks lovely, even if some of the men have chicken legs. Kaye actually tried to avoid this by wearing "symmetricals," which were stockings padded with sponge rubber. But honestly, who is looking at Kaye's legs when he is standing next to the film's two stunners, Angela Lansbury and Glynis Johns? With their low necks, fitted bodices, and superbly picked color schemes, Lansbury and Johns are dazzling.

They aren't just eye candy, though, thank goodness. One of the greatest parts of TCJ is the fact that it allows its female characters to be active. I would argue that they are the cause for the majority of the film's action. As Gwendolyn, Lansbury is deliciously dark. She knows exactly what she wants and she has no problem in using Griselda to get it. Why should she dirty her hands if she has a literal witch to do it for her? It is because of Griselda that Hawkins's "Giacomo" disguise is kept intact for longer than it would have
without her and he is only alive by film's end because of her and
                                                                                           Gwendolyn's interference.

My favorite instigator, though, is Jean. Simply put, this lady gets stuff done. If someone needs conked over the head, she'll do it. If people need catapulted off a castle, she's there. Have a key that could save England from tyranny? She'll get it. Jean is afraid of nothing, and best of all, she is respected for it. She is a captain in a male gang and none of the men question it. They rely on her to give them orders and to think up plans. She intimidates Hawkins at the beginning of the film because he fully recognizes that he is her subordinate and he understands it. The veneration he has for the Black Fox is the same veneration that he has for Jean. With Glynis Johns at the helm, it is easy to see why.

Amidst all of this luminous talent, there is still one star that shines the brightest, though. Watching Kaye (pictured with Fine) in this film is the definition of "joy." Everything he could do is distilled into this one fabulous film. In one scene, he will be vulnerable and gentle. Just minutes later, he'll be charming and romantic. Two scenes later, he is rattling off an array of dizzying rhymes. Arrogance and vanity reverts to insecurity and fear and then reverts back, all within seconds. Kaye was truly one-of-a-kind.

Life could not better be indeed.


This is my contribution to the Swashathon, a lively celebration of swashbucklers in all their forms. Check out the other participants here.


  1. Thank you so much for joining in with all the background information on this beloved classic! I absolutely agree: best commissary photo

    1. Thanks for having me! Don't you just want that photo framed in your house? So perfect.

  2. I have met people who don't like Danny Kaye and do not care for The Court Jester. I do not understand them. For me, this is one of the most entertaining movies of the 1950s, and a true - as you said - comedic masterpiece. I am also sentimentally attached to The Court Jester as the hubby borrowed a copy from Blockbuster during a winter snow storm and we shared it with the kids, creating one of those favourite family movie memories.

    Your affection for the film clearly came through, as well as your appreciation for its greatness.

    1. Thanks! Aren't those family memories with movies the best? Watching The Princess Bride just doesn't feel the same if I'm not eating Chinese food and sitting next to my sister while on vacation in Florida.

      People who don't like Danny Kaye? Or The Court Jester? I don't trust 'em.

  3. I've wanted to see this film for a long time, and your review only made me more anxious to watch it. So far I've only seen Danny Kaye in supporting roles, and the experience was good. Indeed, he deserves to be more recognized.

    1. Yes, Kaye was spectacular. I'm glad he was in White Christmas so people are still exposed to him, even if it's only once a year. I'm sure you'll love The Court Jester -- it's pretty special.

  4. Random thoughts on your fab post:

    1. That commissary photo truly is The Best.
    2. Love Angela Lansbury's description of Danny Kaye, especially her phrase "he was closed for business".
    3. LOOK at these gorgeous costumes!!
    4. Why have I never seen this? Where have I been?

    1. Angela Lansbury is marvelous, isn't she? So articulate and witty.

      The costumes are just beautiful, and the whole film is just laugh after laugh. I would be astonished if you didn't immediately adore it.

  5. That commissary photo was fantastic. I get uncomfortable with some Danny Kaye movies, but I enjoyed this one. I sometimes get the whole "The chalice from the palace!" stuck in my head. Thank you for an interesting essay.

    1. Thanks for reading it! Kaye's films aren't everyone's cup of tea, but I think everyone can agree that The Court Jester is just a great film.


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