Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Court Jester

Written and Directed by:
Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Starring: Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury,
IMDB Entry

The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragonRemember:  The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon. The vessel with the pestle holds the brew that is true.

I'm not generally a fan of Danny Kaye -- I find him generally too manic and trying to hard to be both "wacky" and "heartwarming" -- but, in The Court Jester, he clearly had found the right role and made the most of it.

The film was written and directed by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank specifically as a Danny Kaye vehicle.  The team were major writer/directors of their time, and had just come off the big hit White Christmas (one of my least favorite Christmas movies). Their comedies were not classic, but it was like hiring a top sitcom writer for your latest sitcom:  they could be depended upon to come up with something fun.

The story is a Robin Hood knockoff, where in order to put the rightful king on the throne, Kaye's Hubert Hawkins assumes the role of the court jester for his evil usurper and romances Maid Jean (Glynis Johns -- who I have fond memories of from her TV series and later as Mary Poppins's employer) as he tries to let the Robin Hood character put things to rights.  Basil Rathbone plays Sir Ravenhurst, the usurper's henchman, and his swordfight with Hawkins is a wonder of humor and danger.

There are some fine supporting performances with Angela Lansbury as a princess with an eye on Hubert, and Mildred Natwick as Lansbury's maid/witch.

Kaye has some great songs, but the highlight, of course, is the "pellet with the poison" scene.  It's an eminently quotable ("But they broke the chalice from the palace.") bit of silliness.  For years afterwards, people would come up to Kaye and spout lines from it.

It's surprising the film didn't do as well on first release:  it's funny and, in the old fashioned way, entertaining.  Silly, yes, but if you're looking for a laugh, this is one place to visit.

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