January 13, 2013

Movie Monday: The Court Jester

It’s a birthday movie marathon! Well, not today, but on Sunday, Turner Classic Movies is having a movie marathon in honor of the birthday of legendary comedian Danny Kaye. You might know him as the-other-guy-who’s-not-Bob-Hope in “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby. If you know him from any of his own movies, color me thrilled. And today’s special feature is, in my opinion, the best of his best.

“What starts as a scary tale, ends like a fairy tale, and life couldn’t possibly better be!”

The throne of medieval England has been usurped! A competing family has murdered the royal family and taken over rule of the kingdom. The only survivor is a small infant, being hidden away by rebels fighting the traitors. Hawkins, a runaway circus performer, (Danny Kaye) is part of the rebel group, but unfortunately the only way they let him contribute is by providing entertainment to the men between battles….and performing duties that involve the infant king, and his diapers.

But one day, he and Captain Jean (Glynis Johns) are transporting the infant king to a safe house, when they encounter the new court jester to the royal court. Jean convinces Hawkins to steal the jester’s rig and go in his place. Once he’s inside the castle, he can open a not-so-secret tunnel that will let the rebels sneak in and overthrow the traitors! Easy as pie!

And since Jean is pretty, and Hawkins wants to prove himself – oh, and she’s agreed to marry him if they ever put the rightful king back on the throne – he agrees.

Unfortunately for Hawkins, he has walked into a royal hornets’ nest. There is intrigue and conspiracy on all sides, and it turns out that the new jester was secretly supposed to fill different roles to different people – entertainer, lover, assassin. And Hawkins has to pull it all off perfectly to maintain his cover. There also happens to be a witch in the castle, who picks the most inconvenient times to hypnotize Hawkins to carry out her own errands. And to top it all off, somewhere along the way, Jean gets picked up by soldiers to come be a pretty room ornament at the castle party that night.

Before long, Hawkins is not just juggling to entertain, he’s trying to pretend to be a fool to the king, a steely-eyed killer to the king’s advisor (Basil Rathbone), and a dream come true to the princess (Angela Lansbury). Can he pull it all off, overthrow the evil fake king and win Jean in the end – without getting them all killed?

In my opinion, this is Danny Kaye’s best movie. It showcases nearly all of his greatest skills: singing, dancing, cutting wit, complicated tongue twisters, multiple fake foreign languages, and physical comedy, all feeling totally improvisational. It lacks the heavy drama of “The Five Pennies” or “Hans Christian Anderson,” but  then this movie doesn’t call for it, and it isn’t missed.

Count yourselves lucky I’m only sharing one video. There are tons on youtube, it’s a very popular movie. And of course, the rest of the cast is amazing. Glynis Johns and Angela Lansbury are perfectly glamorous. And Basil Rathbone, the inestimable Basil Rathbone, the ultimate movie villain. It was kind of an honor to have a swordfighting scene with Basil Rathbone, and Danny Kaye gets a heck of a one. Basil Rathbone always played the bad guy, but was an incredible athlete with the sword. He studied swordfighting religiously. If he was lucky, he got a good death scene. So he wanted to make sure he was legit, in the swordsmanship sense. There’s a famous story from when he made the epic “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” he played Sir Guy of Gisbourne, one of Prince John’s henchmen. While filming the major swordfighting scene at the end of the movie, he supposedly leaned it at Errol Flynn (playing Robin Hood) and said, “You may get the girl, but I could kill you if I wanted.” It was a joke…but it wasn’t. :)

Seriously, I love this movie, in case you can’t tell. It’ll be on TCM on Sunday, January 20, at 9:00 pm CST. Or, you can watch it on Amazon Instant Video any time. :)

The rest of the day is going to be great as well, but here are some of my other favorite Danny Kaye movies they are showing:

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947) – Sunday, January 20, 5:00 pm CST
Hans Christian Anderson (1952) – Sunday, January 20, 7:00 pm CST
Wonder Man (1945) – Sunday, January 20, 1:00 am CST (Sunday night)


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