Monday, 26 March 2007

The Court Jester (1955)

The Court Jester

"The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle. No, The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.".

Brian Sibley's quoting of some rhyme from The Court Jester, just a few weeks ago, drew a complete blank from me, so it seems very fortuitous that a new DVD release of a 'classic' film I've never seen should become available just a week or two later.

The Court Jester is a Danny Kaye film from 1955, a sort of musical spoof of 1936's Robin Hood (which I have on a stunning transfer on HD-DVD and must get around to viewing!) and is regarded by many as Danny Kaye's finest film.

Brian was quoting the rhyming lines above because he is a big Danny Kaye fan. I, on the other hand, am not - I have too many TV memories of the sort of 'stupid' behaviour that really annoyed me as a kid, and which annoys me even more as an adult when the likes of Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn take it to the next, even more irritating, level.

However, watching The Court Jester more than 50 years after it was made, I may be forced to re-evaluate my dislike of Kaye. The truth is that The Court Jester is an absolute hoot. It's a movie that has real 'jokes' in it - 'jokes' I've heard repeated in many films/TV series made since - and a film that demonstrates that Monty Python weren't the inventors of the sort of zany kind of comedy I love, after all.

The film titles are a hoot, especially when the actor credit for bad guy Basil Rathbone keeps making unwanted repeat visits

The fun starts with the title sequence, which is a fast-moving romp of clever lyrics and song, performed while Danny Kaye, in jester costume, flips around the titles that keep intruding on his performance area. The whole thing's beautifully cut together and performed, with some wonderfully subtle jokes I didn't catch until watching the film for a second time to grab some screencaps. Watch how the name of the 'lead' actor Basil Rathbone, playing the evil King Roderick, keeps making a re-appearance, no matter how often Kaye's jester tries to push it off the stage. Fun stuff!

The camerawork is admittedly very static and rather dated, but if you can ignore that and listen for the witty verbal wordplay, and wonderful pastiches of great genre movies of the time, you're in for a treat. The songs featured here put the modern trait of just taking established tunes and reworking them, to shame, and show just how poor a job is being done by the likes of Elton John and Tim Rice when compared with the old masters Norman Frank and Norman Panama.

Basil Rathbone is the evil and murderous King Roderick, shown here with a bunch of chronies plotting to assassinate him for evil motives of their own

The plot, such as it is, is all over the place, with farce being the main element, and twists and turns that make you think the 'hero' is never going to get his girl and defeat the villain. At times it feels that the writers are just throwing too much into the mix to try and make something stick, but fortunately this is not a big problem because the plot is merely a small hook to hang the songs, the comedy and Kaye's performance on. Fortunately these are impressive enough to make up for any plot confusions or inconsistencies.

I thought the catch-phrase was a fairly modern phenomenon, but The Court Jester proves me wrong, with its 'Get it? Got it? Good' line repeated by Kaye several times throughout the run. But the film doesn't rely just on catch-phrases for humour, with the afore-mentioned witty verbal jokes, and some beautifully choreographed slap-stick that shows just how talented a performer Danny Kaye was. It's hard to imagine anybody not having a grin on their face during his performance to entertain the king, or his attempts to learn the rhyme that starts off this mini-review, and which instigated this mini-review.

A heavily made-up Danny Kaye shows he can do 'serious' when he needs to, shown here with co-star Glynis Johns

Basil Rathbone is perhaps too charismatic and jolly a man to be taken seriously as chief villain, but his evil, scheming cohorts make up for that. Angela Lansbury makes a believable beautiful princess, getting comedic laughs through playing things completely 'straight', and Glynis Johns shows she can be Kaye's equal in comedy performing when she needs to be.

But this is Danny Kaye's film, and he demonstrates time and time again what a gifted actor he is, whether being called on to play it straight, play the buffoon, or just sing and dance. It's not hard to see why the actor had so many fans.

The transfer to DVD is stunning, with the overly-saturated 'Vista-Vision' colours being beautifully presented in anamorphic widescreen. Admittedly the picture is rather soft, but given the age of the material this is hardly surprising. The transfer is remarkably free of flecks, dust or even grain and it's doubtful that the film has ever looked as good as it does here.

Angela Lansbury plays Princess Gwendolyn, besotted with Kaye's character who has been hypnotised by Gwendolyn's assistant into thinking he is in love with her.

Unfortunately the DVD is 'vanilla' with nothing extra at all. Given the stature of the film, one would have expected some sort of commentary, even if most of those actually involved in the making of the film are now dead. However, given the quality of the transfer and the ridiculously low asking price one can't really grumble.

Is the film a rental or a purchase? I would err towards the latter - this really is a film where the humour is so fast and sharp the film will pay repeated viewings. If I can quote Mr Kaye: Get it? Got it? Good!

The jester's hope that nobody would notice the basket containing the true heir to the throne seemed somewhat naive!


Brian Sibley said...

Well done for joining 'The Court Jester Club'! Actually, I'm NOT a huge Danny Kaye fan and really only like two of his movies: THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY and - er - well - THIS one!!

Everything you say about the quality of this movie is spot-on and if anyone who is still debating whether to rent or buy might care to know that however many times I see the film, I still can't resist laughing OUT LOUD...

Just for clarification: the jolly King Roderick is played by Cecil Parker (a wonderfully versatile performer and one of the ORIGINAL 'LadyKillers'); Basil Rathbone plays the sinister Sir Ravenshurst, a re-run of his 'baddie', Sir Guy of Gisbourne, in the 1938 Errol Flynn film 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' - indeed, his duel with Kaye (Rathbone was a master swordsman) is a pastiche of the climactic sword-flight with Flynn and is a tour de force of dramatic and comic timing.

Ian said...

Thanks for the corrections. After our phone conversation last night I realised I had misinterpreted who Basil Rathbone was, and that you weren't the big Danny Kaye fan I'd thought you were.

Meant to correct the review this morning but ran out of time. Probably easier to just leave it as it is now with your correction below it.

I'm going to have to learn to remember the names of the characters and look them up on imdb. It's very annoying when there's no photo to help.

P.S. Good to see you back, presumably out of the hospital now :)

jay @ duds said...

This was my favourite movie as a kid!
I tried and tried to get it from my local DVD place but it'd been stolen :(