Paramount Pictures’ The Court Jester, a grand musical comedy that showcases the talents of its star Danny Kaye, is a funny variation on Warner Brothers’ The Adventures of Robin Hood. To evoke that film, the producing/directing/writing team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama went for a similar look, using Technicolor, and shared Basil Rathbone as the villain. However instead of a gallant nobleman, bumbling minstrel Hubert Hawkings (Danny Kaye), considered the least likely of those led by the Black Fox, becomes the hero.
As told by the narrator, some months before the film started, “King Roderick the Tyrant seized the throne by a massacre of the entire royal family.” However, an infant and the rightful heir survived and has come under the protection of the Black Fox. Worried about the child and growing insurrection, three Lords suggest an alliance with Sir Griswold. Lord Ravenhurst (Rathbone) is against this as he’ll lose power as is Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), who wants someone dashing and romantic for a husband rather than the brutish Griswold.
Maid Jean (Glynis John), a Captain in the Black Fox’s ranks, and Hawkins leave the forest with the child to deliver him to safety. She knows of a secret passage between the castle and forest that could be used to overthrow Roderick’s forces, but a key is needed to open the door. Fate provides an entry to the castle when they encounter Giacomo the Jester, whose identity Hawkins takes to infiltrate the King’s Court. What Hawkins doesn’t know is that Giacomo is also an assassin hired by Ravenhurst to kill the three Lords, so only he will have Roderick’s ear. Ravenhurst learns that Hawkins is not Giacomo, but presumes he’s the Black Fox. Further complicating matters, the castle witch Grisdela (Mildred Natwick) throws Hawkins casts a spell on him to woo Gwendolyn.
Kaye delivers an outstanding performance. In addition to his singing and dancing, his quick, frequent change of character personalities, from meek as a mouse to brave as a lion, at a snap is an amazing feat of acting. Plus, he delivers some very wordy passages of tongue twisting dialogue most notably trying to remember “the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!” The rest of the cast does a good job in support of Kaye playing it straight with performances that could fit seamlessly into a drama.
Aside from the top-notch casting, what makes The Court Jester work is Frank & Panama’s smart script. They created an authentic swashbuckling adventure and do a great job of juggling the characters’ competing goals, which increases the conflict and stakes. It’s rare for comedies to be concerned about the plot and execute it so well.
The Blu-ray celebrating the 65th anniversary of The Court Jester is #13 in the Paramount Presents line. The video has been given a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Originally shot in Paramount’s VistaVision widescreen format by director of photography Ray June, this new restoration was created from a combination of a 6K scan of the original negative and a scan of a “separation master” that has led to an exquisite picture. Skipping the opening credits, the picture looks great. The colors shine in vibrant hues, particularly noticeable in Edith Head and Yvonne Wood’s costumes. Blacks are lush in their inkiness. The image presents depth, a sharp focus, and impressive texture detail in the costumes, props, and sets; all of which brings a realism to the world unfurling before viewers. The image is also very clean, free of dirt or defect.
The audio is available in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono. Dialogue is crisp and clear and even when the words are twisting and coming at a faster clip, they never get lost. Composer Victor Schoen’s score can be a touch too loud and distort, but otherwise it blends well with the other elements. The track sounds free of hiss or other signs of wear and age.
Special Features are limited:
- Filmmaker Focus: Leonard Maltin on The Court Jester (HD, 7 min) – Maltin talks about the film’s cast and crew.
- Theatrical trailer (SD, 2 min)
The Court Jester is a standout from the Paramount vaults and well deserving of its anniversary being celebrated. It will make you seek out other work by Danny Kaye and the team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama. The Blu-ray sets the bar high for 2021 and even at this early date, the video makes it one to be remembered at year’s end.