The Court Jester was a vanity project put together in 1956 by Danny Kaye’s own production company and, at nearly four million dollars (around thirty-five million in contemporary coin), the most expensive comedy produced to that date.
Even with that formidable budget sitting on its shoulders, the movie never feels weighed down; with its palatial sets, opulent matte paintings and sporting not one, but two directors, the film, like its red-headed leading man, is still loose-limbed, nimble and never afraid to be extremely silly. In the pantheon of musical comedies, The Court Jester may not be on a par with Singin’ in the Rain, but it sits comfortably at its right hand side.
Set in medieval England, Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a buffoonish vagabond enlisted to protect a newborn baby, the rightful heir to the throne presently occupied by the villainous King Roderick. In order to ensure the child’s safe passage, Hubert is forced to impersonate Roderick’s court jester.
Directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama co-wrote the quick-witted script, mapping out an action-packed plot as convoluted as the swashbucklers it satirizes. Co-stars Glynis Johns, Angela Lansbury and Basil Rathbone navigate the headspinning twists and turns with ease and, canny veterans that they are, play their parts completely straight.
There’s a no more canny vet here than Danny Kaye himself. His easy-going baritone carries the sweetly melodic score (by Sammy Cahn and Sylvia Fine) which combines lullaby-like love songs with pop-inflected jazz tunes. That Crosby-like crooning, paired with his balletic pratfalls, makes Kaye the ideal leading man for this romantic farce about fair maidens and jesters; he’s a perfect fool.
With its unabashed artifice and VistaVision pageantry, The Court Jester epitomized the traditional Hollywood musical. It was very nearly the last of its kind; JAILHOUSE ROCK was right on its heels and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT was only eight short years away. Those films would signal both an end and a beginning: The Court Jester is dead! Long live The Court Jester!