Friday, 26 April 2019

The Court Jester (1955) – movie review

 **imported content from the old website**

With “MARY POPPINS RETURNS” out now, I’ve decided to take a look back at another movie that contains two stars from the Mary Poppins canon – Glynis Johns from the original, and Angela Lansbury from the sequel; that movie is “THE COURT JESTER” from 1955.

It takes a rare film to sit perfectly on that axis of great music, razor-sharp wit and so much fun you won’t stop smiling the whole way through. If it wasn’t clear already, I LOVE this one. A financial failure upon release, “The Court Jester” has nevertheless found its much-deserved cult following in later life.

Today, I want to talk about this classic gem.


The farcical plot kicks off with a little background; in medieval ‘England’ (the English accents come and go), the current royal family has been usurped and murdered – a pretender king (Cecil Parker) is on the throne. Only one member of the true bloodline survives, a baby with a purple pimpernel birthmark on his royal posterior! Said baby is currently being cared for by the rebel gang of the Robin Hood-esque figure, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley)! New to the group, carnival-performer Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye) longs to join the real fight. He gets his chance when he is assigned to take the precious infant to safety, accompanied by the Black Fox’s captain, the maid Jean (Glynis Johns).

As a satire of traditional swashbucklers of the era, a lot of tropes are flipped on their heads in some very satisfying ways. We get a lovely few scenes showing Hawkins as the gentle, nurturing figure, singing to the baby, while Jean is the one who sets up their home for the night. She is also the one to take action when Giacomo, the new jester for the usurper king, stops for shelter on his way to the castle. She conks him on the head and sets up Hawkins as the new Giacomo, with the hopes of gaining access to the castle so the Black Fox can make an attack against the pretender king. Meanwhile, Jean is to continue her journey with the baby.
Giacomo: “…King of Jesters, and jester of kings!”
Of course, because this is a farce, the usurper King is looking for the ‘fairest wenches in the land’ and scoops up Jean – hidden baby and all – and brings her to the castle as well. Now Hawkins and Jean need to try to get the baby somewhere safe and arrange the Black Fox’s attack.
Add to that a political alliance that the King is trying to orchestrate by marrying off his daughter, the defiant princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury); her maid Griselda (Mildred Natwick) has been filling her head with stories of dashing heroes and romance – and if she doesn’t save Gwendolyn from this marriage and fulfill her fantasies, the princess will kill her. Hawkins, the handsome stranger in the court, seems like the perfect candidate to make all this happen.

AND on top of everything else, we have the conniving Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone) who is also trying to tear apart the alliance, and who had hired the real Giacomo as an undercover assassin to murder his rivals at the court. Let’s just hope that Hawkins can keep his head long enough to tie all these threads together!


“The Court Jester” is one of those perfect potions for when you’re feeling blue. The film is not always belly-laugh funny, and it’s not always supposed to be; the humour mostly comes from the wordplay – which spawned iconic phrases like ‘Get it? – Got it – Good!’ and the whole exchange about the pellet with the poison (possibly minor spoilers).

The excellent wordplay is further supplemented by some clever slapstick and plenty of catchy songs (which were co-written by Danny Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine). A particular favourite of mine is the song from the opening credits; it sounds at first like a normal diddy, then becomes increasingly meta.
I touched on it before, but this film really is quite progressive for its time, in a brilliantly subtle kind of way.

Most of this is actually around the male lead, Hawkins; sure, he is presented as a ‘fool’ and does plenty of physical gags, but he’s not actually a moron. He is a kind, gentle figure, caring for the baby and acting as the entertainer for the gang of rebels. While Hawkins gets to swashbuckle around throughout the film, he is never shamed for being a gentler soul – in fact, is praised for it – and I love that. I love that he is a masculine hero that gets to fight and save the day, but does so without being an overly-aggressive emotional vampire.

If I had to criticise anything at all from the film, a couple of the bits and songs go on a little longer than they really need to. For example, there is a scene where Hawkins is dressed as an old man and Jean is playing his deaf-mute daughter. Although it ends with a good punchline, it could have been trimmed with no detriment to the film.

Closing Analysis

“The Court Jester” is a super fun, feel-good movie; it’s the kind of thing to put on whenever you’re feeling a little blue and want some light, yet clever, escapism. It may seem like a cliche, but this really is a perfect film for the whole family. It has adventure, music, jokes – and, frankly, it looks gorgeous! Is it 100% perfect? Maybe not quite. But I love it to pieces. Besides, it was selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry; that’s got to mean something, right?

Cheers and cheerio!

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