Poison. Betrayal. A royal massacre. Sounds like Game of Thrones, but the same description actually applies to Melvin Frank and Norman Panama’s The Court Jester. The difference is The Court Jester is a comedy, so all the royal massacring takes place offscreen.
There was a survivor, though – a baby with the royal birthmark (a purple pimpernel) on his left butt cheek – and while some people would have him grow up to be king, others – namely the usurper (Cecil Parker) – would have him killed.
Luckily, the rightful heir is a quiet baby because a lot of the scenes in this movie wouldn’t work if he made a noise, but considering he is so quiet, a lot still goes wrong for Hawkins (Danny Kaye) and Maid Jean (Glynis Johns). Initially they’re supposed to be transporting the baby to safety but when an opportunity to disguise Hawkins as the court jester falls into their laps, they take it without hesitation.
As much as their plan lacks preparation, it wouldn’t be a comedy without hijinks. From hypnotism to mistaken identities to music, The Court Jester has a little of everything and in many ways feels like a precursor to Robert Reiner’s The Princess Bride. Every character has their own agenda, and, like The Princess Bride, the film’s most successful gag involves wordplay, as Hawkins tries to remember which glass the poison is in but keeps forgetting the rhyme that’s supposed to help him.
In terms of Kaye’s career, his roles tend to range from really silly (The Kid from Brooklyn) to more serious (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). The Court Jester falls right in the middle and overrates how much Hawkins needs to be the romantic lead. The same can be said of Maid Jean, who is first introduced as a captain in Black Fox’s band of outlaws. As promising as that sounds, though (and as much as it seems like a good sign that no one ever reacts when Hawkins tries to make out like Jean should be the one babysitting), there’s still a deflection towards traditional gender roles.
Angela Lansbury plays Princess Gwendolyn, who spends most of the movie trying to avoid an arranged marriage or threatening to kill her companion, Griselda (Mildred Natwick). Because a lot of the comedy in this film comes from repetition (whether it’s the repeated gag of seeing Hawkins go in and out of a trance or seeing how a knighthood is supposed to go before it’s Hawkins turn), the punchlines are often predictable, but that doesn’t make them any less funny.
Paramount’s new Blu-Ray comes with a short bonus feature from film critic, Leonard Maltin, where he provides some background on the cast and crew. It’s packed with information but it’s a shame Maltin couldn’t have had more time to discuss the movie in depth. The packaging is a little underwhelming, in terms of the cardboard sleeve. The colors seem fuzzy on the poster art, but it’s nothing that should prevent fans from picking up this release.
The Court Jester is available on Blu-Ray now from Paramount Presents.