November Film Series in Quarantine: THE COURT JESTER (1955)
Short plot summary: Danny Kaye stars in this swashbuckling historical comedy musical. The farcical romp plays on the tradition of historical adventure films like The Adventures of Robin Hood in an airy manner that delights and entertains on multiple levels. The kingdom has been usurped by a murderous interloper and Danny Kaye’s outlaw minstrel seeks to place the rightful child heir in his correct place. A case of mistaken identity leads to his infiltration of the castle and his perilous intrigue to dethrone the imposter. Of course comedy ensues as nothing goes as planned!
The songs are hilarious: Pay close attention to the musical lyrics in each song as they were so cleverly constructed. It really is a lot of fun.
Life Could Not Better Be – this opening number sets up the entire trajectory of the farcical nature of the film as our minstrel sings about the film to come, the generic background it will play against, and specifics of how they spared no expense in their research.
Outfox the Fox is my personal favorite song in the film, and the whole number is cleverly choreographed and is a hoot that doesn’t wear out its welcome on repeat viewings.
The Maladjusted Jester is a wonderful song that even poignantly outlines the role of the comedian in times both historical and modern. They truly make their way by making fools of themselves.
Technical specs: Released in technicolor and in the widescreen VistaVision format. VistaVision was not an anamorphic widescreen process, but it flipped the 35mm film sideways so that stretching and compressing were not needed. This yielded higher quality visuals, and although it was short-lived (only about seven years) films still used it for special effects sequences for decades to come.
What was going on in cinema history when this was produced?
Boy, do I feel stuck in a particular time, with all of my suggestions this fall coming from the same era. This film came out in December of 1955, just before Christmas, but only in Japan. It came out in January in the U.S., so I wasn’t even sure what year to put after the film’s title. We will say 1955, but it was released domestically near the end of January 1956. Compared to my other two suggestions this fall, Forbidden Planet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, all three of these came out within a year of each other. In this era there WAS a significant revival of historical costume dramas to showcase technological improvements and differentiate cinematic thrills from TV production. As mentioned in the earlier reviews from the mid-1950s, probably the most successful genre was the large-cast musicals. Against this backdrop the creators were inspired to lay bare all the conventions of these two types and play against them in a comical way.
This era in the 1950s is marked by the creative break from many of the norms established in the 1930s and 1940s. The Classic Hollywood style and genres were established during those two decades, and are beloved to this day, but in the 1950s there were creative movements to break out of conventions. The space movie, the absolute panic of the Body Snatchers, and now the farcical playing with genre were a result. I certainly love this post-classical era as well.
So please, enjoy the movie now. This is one of my family’s favorites that all of us of any age can enjoy.
Where is it available? Public libraries should have it: Orem has multiple copies confirmed (here 1LINK and 2LINK), Provo as well, the BYU library has more than one copy for those who have privileges, and for streaming rental or purchase it is available on YouTube, on GooglePlay, and Amazon.
For AFTER the Movie:
I hope you enjoyed the film as much as I do. The hypnotic back and forth gets everyone laughing and is a highlight for all screenings. The magnetic pulling of the helmet from Griswold’s hands is a most beautiful comedic moment in cinema. The repeated threats of Angela Lansbury to throw herself from the highest tower, and the repeated displaying of the baby’s behind are some of my favorite parts.
It really turns the genre on its head to have our hero NOT be Errol Flynn-type, but the one who cannot swordfight, who is a nursemaid, and shies away from killing and fighting. But a hero he is nonetheless. Glynis Johns did a terrific job in a fun role where her role must take on many of the genre’s conventional hero duties.
While the film was a commercial bomb the first time through, it has since been recognized as a comedy classic, and I hope you will agree.
This was the most expensive comedy up to this time. Typically, comedies were inexpensive to make because they often require relatively small casts and minimal sets. But in order to appropriately lampoon a “big budget” historical adventure/drama and “big budget” musicals it was requisite that they still invest in horses, elaborate costumes, full-scale sets, and a large cast. The budget for the picture then was very similar to what would be typical for this genre, running up to over $4 million in 1955, adjusted for inflation that would be almost $39 million for today! The film was considered a flop, because it only earned back $2.2 million in the box office (21.5 million today).
Basil Rathbone was an excellent swordsman. Danny Kaye was not. Kaye’s comical sword fighting performance was so manic and haphazard that he diverged widely from rehearsed steps and almost skewered Rathbone multiple times during their exchange. Rathbone has stated that it was only due to his quick prowess that he wasn’t injured and that he was truly fighting for his life out there when the audience is laughing in the aisles.
I sincerely hope you have enjoyed this king of movies and movie of kings!
Ben Harry, Curator
BYU Motion Picture Archive