Sometimes comedy in the movies gets a bit ahead of current cultural tastes. But the joy of TV re-runs, DVDs and the like is that as audience sensibilities catch up, a film whose wit eluded people at the time of its release can be recognized as a comedy classic.
This has been the fate of several big name comedy films made in the 1950s, including the Truman Capote-scripted Beat the Devil, a dud at the time now regarded as a cult classic. An even better example, and one that should be in every discussion of the greatest comedy scripts in Hollywood history, is 1956’s The Court Jester. A big budget bomb at the time, this film is now deservedly recognized as a complete delight, for laughs, for music, and for a tour-de-force performance by the amazing Danny Kaye.
The chortle-filled script of Co-Producer/Directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, like those of Monty Python and The Simpsons much later, piles jokes on top of each other without seeming to mind if many viewers miss some of them. In the typical 1950s comedy film, the dialogue about how “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle” would be THE joke of that scene. And, at one level, that would have been fine, because the wordplay by itself is gutbusting. But why not have Danny Kaye’s armor struck by lightning, causing it to magnetize, to throw some physical comedy on top of the verbal jokes? And again, Monty Python style, why have boring credits when you could put a bunch of sight gags and a ridiculous song in there as well?
The film is set in Olde England, where crafty royals, dastardly nobles, and noble craftys all involve themselves in the succession of the king. Thrown into the mix is Hubert Hawkins (Kaye) a song-and-dance man who gets intertwined with the plotting and repeatedly gets mistaken for someone else in situations of romance and peril. There is swordplay, there are castles and jousts, there are $4 million in production values (which was a lot of money in the 1950s).
But plot schmott, this is film as fun. And who could be of greater service in that endeavour than Danny Kaye, in his finest moment as an entertainer? He handles the physical and verbal humor equally well, seems at home both in the dueling scenes and in romantic moments, and sings and dances as well. Because he doesn’t seem to be taking anything too seriously, it’s very easy to laugh along with him.
Basil Rathbone, as the villainous Lord Ravenhurst, gamely mocks his role in The Adventures of Robin Hood. He is an absolute hoot and the final fate of his character is priceless. Mildred Natwick is so funny that I literally cried from watching her expressions and listening to her delivery of great comic lines. And Angela Lansbury, as a besotted adolescent of a princess, shows great comic touch.
We sometimes say “They don’t make ’em like that any more”. But this film deserves a higher compliment, which is that they didn’t make ’em like that then, but they learned how by watching groundbreaking films like this.