For Your (Re)Consideration: The Court Jester
“For Your (Re)Consideration” is Rough Cut’s ongoing series in which our staff will make the case for a film they feel is underseen or underappreciated relative to the canon.
Every film lover had a childhood rotation — those handful of formative movies that they watched over and over again, burning out their VHS copies as they memorized every line and every frame. Similarly, every childhood rotation had that one movie that you assumed was a widely seen and recognized classic, which you later learn no one you talk to has ever even heard of it. For me, that film is 1955’s musical-comedy The Court Jester.
Considered at the time the most expensive comedy ever made, the Melvin Frank / Norman Panama film is on its face a winning spoof of early swashbucklers like Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, but serves primarily as a vehicle for the (at the time) popular star Danny Kaye. The modern moviegoer’s exposure to Kaye is most likely through the holiday classic White Christmas (charming), but the vaudeville performer and radio star became well known during the forties and fifties for his film work, featuring his signature slapstick physical comedy and tongue-twisting verbal patter.
The Court Jester stands as perhaps Kaye’s greatest accomplishment and the best use of his prodigious talents. He stars as Hubert Hawkins, a performer who has joined the revolutionary group led by the Robin Hood-esque Black Fox and ultimately has to infiltrate the royal court and save the day. There’s a lot of plot here — an evil king, the rightful heir (a baby with a royal birthmark, of course), multiple love triangles and assassination plots — but every element is really just an excuse for winning setpieces where Kaye can strut his stuff along the likes of Basil Rathbone, Glynis Johns, and a scene-stealing Angela Lansbury.
Released in Technicolor and VistaVision, The Court Jester still looks great despite the noticeable seams around the edges — the medieval costuming and castle sets were undoubtedly a significant part of that comparatively large budget — and settles into a pleasantly quick pace after a somewhat slower first act. Structurally, the film numbers among the movie musicals of the era that exist somewhere in-between the pre- and post-Oklahoma! Broadway style where the music isn’t an afterthought, but isn’t really the backbone either. While the few slower numbers may not be anything to write home about, the ones that make use of Kaye’s comedic sensibilities and quick delivery are a wonder to behold:
But while “The Maladjusted Jester” (as well as the opening song, “Outfox the Fox”) stands as a brilliant piece of novelty songwriting, leaving me cackling every time I see it, the film reaches its high points in two sequences so expertly and rhythmically executed they feel almost like musical numbers in their sensibilities. The latter comes during the climax of the film, so I won’t go into too much detail here (know that it involves an elaborate sword fight), but the former has persevered as The Court Jester’s most iconic moment, a tribute to the sheer comedic power that can be derived from smart wordplay and juxtaposed delivery:
No, The Court Jester isn’t perfect: notably, it shows its age in the way many films of decades past do — its attempts at inclusivity and gender equality are probably worthy of some level of “they tried” admiration given the time in which the film was made, though neither quite hit the mark. But as a musical-comedy adventure focused more than anything else on being as silly as possible, it succeeds as well as anything before or since. Available on streaming and in a recent Blu-ray re-release from Paramount, there are worse films to have enter the childhood rotation of the next generation.