The Court Jester is a 1956 musical-comedy film starring Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury and Cecil Parker. The movie was co-written, co-directed, and co-produced by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. The film was released by Paramount Pictures in Technicolor and in the VistaVision widescreen format.
Made for a cost of $4 million in the fall of 1955, it was the most expensive comedy film produced at the time. The motion picture bombed at the box-office on its release, bringing in only $2.2 million in receipts the following winter and spring of 1956. Since then, it has become a television matinee favorite. The film contains the famous exchanges: "Get it?" "Got it." "Good!" and "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!" (mainly between Kaye and Mildred Natwick as Griselda).
Set in medieval England, the plot concerns the struggle to restore to the throne the rightful heir, a baby with a distinguishing birthmark, the purple pimpernel on his posterior. Danny Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, an ex-carnival entertainer who becomes minstrel to the Black Fox, a Robin Hood-type character who leads a band of rebels in the forest in support of the true infant-king.
The usurping King Roderick (Cecil Parker) wishes his daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), to marry his neighbour, Sir Griswold of MacElwain (Robert Middleton), and to enlist Griswold's aid against the band of forest rebels. Princess Gwendolyn refuses, since she dreams of a more handsome, gallant lover, and her personal maid Griselda (Mildred Natwick), who is a witch, has predicted that her true love will arrive at the castle to court her. The Griswold marriage plan also displeases Lord Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone), who fears that Griswold's presence may cost him his privileged position with the king.
The Black Fox orders Hawkins to carry the infant-king across the country to safety, accompanied by his captain, the maid Jean. On the journey, a romance blossoms between Hawkins and Jean. They encounter the King's new jester, "Giacomo, 'King of Jesters and Jester of Kings'" (John Carradine) on his way to the castle. They knock him out and Hawkins impersonates him, hoping to gain entry to the King's castle. He is assigned to steal the key to a secret passage into the castle, through which the Black Fox could then attack. However, Hawkins is unaware that the jester he is impersonating is also a famous assassin whom Lord Ravenhurst plans to employ to murder his rivals at court: Brockhurst, Finsdale, and Pertwee.
Upon Hawkins' arrival, Griselda hypnotizes him and changes his personality for that of a gallant, dashing lover, who sneaks into the Princess Gwendolyn's chambers and wins her affections, though he rapidly switches in and out of this personality whenever anyone (including himself) snaps their fingers. Maid Jean is captured on the road by the King's men, who have been sent to round up pretty young girls to decorate the upcoming tournament. The King meets her and takes a fancy to her. She obtains the key to the secret passage by picking his pocket, and passes it along to Hawkins, but in his hypnotized state Hawkins does not remember her or his original mission until he is freed from Griselda's spell, and thus accidentally loses the key back to the king. In order to prevent Princess Gwendolyn from being forced to marry Griswold, Griselda poisons Ravenhurst's competitors Brockhurst, Finsdale and Pertwee, who had supported the proposed match. Ravenhurst mistakenly credits Hawkins for these murders. Later, however, Ravenhurst learns that Hawkins is not in fact the jester/assassin Giacomo, but an imposter, and swiftly suspects him to be the Black Fox himself.
During the evening banquet, Sir Griswold arrives to solidify his alliance with the king. However, Gwendolyn openly declares her love for the jester, and the enraged King orders Hawkins' death. Griswold announces that, if "Giacomo" were a knight rather than a common clown, he would challenge him to mortal combat. With the intent of having the "Black Fox" get rid of Griswold, Ravenhurst counsels the King that he can get rid of the jester by making him a knight, who would then have to fight Sir Griswold and would surely be killed, thus forcing Gwendoline to marry the victor. A series of comic scenes ensues in which the king's men help Hawkins to rapidly pass through the various trials required to become a knight.
Jean uses her confidence with the king to steal back the key and send it to the forest rebels by carrier-pigeon. She also tries to save Hawkins by asking the Black Fox to substitute for him in the joust. But just before the rebels can use the secret passage, it collapses, leaving only a small crawlspace, just large enough for dwarves to pass through. The Black Fox decides to summon Hawkins' friends, a troupe of acrobatic dwarfs from Hawkins' carnival days, and sends them through the passage for a diversionary attack.
Meanwhile, in the castle, Hawkins is hastily knighted, and Griswold immediately challenges him to a joust to the death. Griselda tries to save him by poisoning one of the drinks to be used for the toast immediately before the joust, but Griswold also learns of the poison, and after a quarrel between the two combatants over who should drink which drink, the toast is cancelled. Against all odds (mostly due to a lightning bolt which magnetizes his armor), Hawkins wins the joust, but spares Griswold's life.
Ravenhurst denounces Hawkins and Maid Jean as imposters. Hawkins's dwarf friends, who have entered the castle through the secret passage, rescue him and capture the castle from the King's soldiers. During this battle, Ravenhurst attacks Hawkins with a sword. Griselda hastily enchants Hawkins again, giving him expert prowess in fencing (again switching between novice and expert at a finger-snap). Hawkins and Ravenhurst fight, and Ravenhurst is finally hurled into the sea by a catapult.
Griswold returns to defend the King, but Hawkins reveals the infant king's birthmark to him, as well as to the usurper Roderick and his few surviving soldiers. Overcome with remorse, everyone in the castle pledges allegiance to the true infant-king, and Hawkins leads everyone in one last chorus of "Life could not better be".
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Hollywood arranger and composer Vic Schoen was asked to provide the musical score for the film. Film composer Elmer Bernstein was hired as the assistant musical director to Schoen. The Court Jester was an enormous challenge for Schoen at the time because it was his first feature film. He was not officially trained on the mechanisms of how music was synchronized to film – he learned on the job. The film also required 100 minutes of music for Schoen to compose and arrange. Some pieces in the film (also known as "cues") were very long, and required many hours for Schoen to finesse. One piece that Schoen was most proud of in his career was the chase music he wrote toward the end of the movie when Danny Kaye's character engages in a sword fight. Schoen wrote a mini piano concerto for this scene.
A pleasant surprise happened during the recording session of The Court Jester. The red "recording in progress" light was illuminated to ensure no interruptions, so Schoen started to conduct a cue but noticed that the entire orchestra had turned to look at Igor Stravinsky, who had just walked into the studio. Schoen said, "The entire room was astonished to see this short little man with a big chest walk in and listen to our session. I later talked with him after we were done recording. We went and got a cup of coffee together. After listening to my music Stravinsky told me 'You have broken all the rules'. At the time I didn't understand his comment because I had been self-taught. It took me years to figure out what he had meant."
The film's opening song, "Life Could Not Better Be" breaks the fourth wall by having Kaye make direct references to the cast and crew, at one point also joking about which of the credited songwriters actually wrote the songs. Although not an uncommon trope in musical film comedies of the era (such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's "Road" films (several of which were also written by Panama & Frank)), in the context of the film these references also hark back to medieval theatrical performances that often began with an actor explaining the plot and how the play came to be made.
In September 1955, Kaye recorded a nine-minute-long, condensed version of The Court Jester for 1956 release by Decca Records on the two-part single K 166. The simplified version of the storyline features excerpts from several songs from the film, but eliminates the character of Hubert; in the 45 single version, The Fox impersonates Giacomo throughout. Lord Ravenhurst is replaced by an unnamed evil king, and Jean is also dropped from the tale. Songs featured (often no more than a few lines): "Outfox the Fox", "I'll Take You Dreaming", "My Heart Knows a Lovely Song", and the finale version of "Life Could Not Better Be."
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On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 96% based on 25 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 7.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "A witty spoof of medieval swashbuckler movies, The Court Jester showcases Danny Kaye at his nimble, tongue-twisting best." Author and film critic Leonard Maltin awarded the film four out of a possible four stars, calling it "one of the best comedies ever made".