100 Movie Musicals #26: The Court Jester (1955)

Classic, loving sendup of fantasy swashbucklers of the 40s and 50s, with a subversion of gender roles still sadly relevant to modern fantasy. A delightful, silly reprieve stuffed full of quotable bits.

Get it? Got it. Good.

I love this movie, and have for ages. I’ve seen it easily a dozen times, and it’s basically the perfect midcentury musical. It’s clever as hell, the songs are catchy, the jokes are nerdy as heck and mostly all land, and it’s only 101 minutes long. What more could you ask for?

The plot is convoluted, essential, and irrelevant, all at once. Everything that happens grows out of the thick hedge of backstory the movie lays out in a winking introductory credit sequence — royal family murdered, usurper on the throne, baby prince survives, rebels in the forest, shifting alliances, yadda yadda — but it’s all so deeply familiar that you don’t have to get bogged down in the web of relationships. You’ve heard of Robin Hood or Game of Thrones? Fine, great, you’ve got the gist, let’s go. The jokes still land because this is still a stock fantasy plot 67 years later.

Captain Jean, The Black Fox, Hawkins, and the Prince with the Purple Pimpernel

But The Court Jester isn’t a parody of that plot so much as a gently comedic version of it. What if we replaced the dashing hero with a sweet-natured circus entertainer who longs for action but whose skills as a caregiver make him more valuable as a nursemaid? What if we replaced the damsel love interest with a female swashbuckler instead? What if they had to go undercover as their stock characters, and we mine the dramatic irony of them playing against type while playing according to type? What if everyone played this completely straight but we paced things like a medieval screwball comedy?

Hawkins, gently singing the infant prince to sleep

Flipping the genders of the main characters and not playing it for anxiety or resentment is a major key to the movie’s timelessness. There’s still a little of that 50s misogyny, in that the reversal is meant to be funny rather than neutral, but the movie never shames Danny Kaye’s Hawkins for his motherliness or Glynis Johns’ Jean for her swashbuckling; those skills are key to their success, even as they constantly trade gendered tasks back and forth as the plot demands. Hawkins’ skills at childcare are what piques Jean’s romantic interest in him—the closest thing the movie has to a traditional love song is a lullaby Hawkins sings to the baby while Jean watches, suddenly interested. It is still, today, so incredibly rare to see a fantasy hero—hell, a male lead in any genre—singing tenderly and sincerely to a baby so it’ll feel safe and sleepy. It’s also Jean that initiates their relationship, and spawns the plan to take the castle specifically because she’s not comfortable marrying Hawkins until the king is restored. Hawkins is absolutely the main character here, but he’s constantly reactive; it’s Jean who sets things in motion, and Jean who keeps everything on track while Hawkins flails around dramatically, and Jean kicks everything off because she can’t get married to this cute Good Boy until after the war is won. Hawkins ends up the prize in two romances, pursued by Angela Lansbury’s Princess Gwendolin and her witch in his disguise as Giacomo the jester/assassin.

(Look, I told you it was convoluted.)

young, hot angela lansbury

The script is delightful, packed with nerdy jokes about the Francis Bacon-Shakespeare theory, fantasy’s meaningless archaisms, and endlessly quotable rapid fire dialogue, from the repeated “get it/got it/good” exchange as Hawkins bluffs his way through multiple nested assassination and abduction scheme to the world’s most unnecessarily complex poisoning scheme (“the vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true”). Even the names have a pie-eyed High Fantasy melodiousness to them: the ministers Brockhurst, Finsdale, and Pertwee, always mentioned in one breath; the grim and grisly Griswold of the North; Lord Ravenhurst, the conniving prime minister; Griselda the put upon witch. The songs by Sylvia Fine and Sammy Cahn revel in verbal gymnastics, and Kaye sells the hell out of every melodic tongue twister they send his way, with a particular showpiece in “The Maladjusted Jester,” an extended riff on his notional comedic backstory. They’re more tuneful than patter songs, and lord knows Danny Kaye is a better singer than, say, the Marx Brothers, but they have a similar lyrics-first approach.

if your majesty doth ask it, i will tell about the basket

All in all, it’s just a winning, gentle movie where sweetness, quick wits, and an army of patriotic circus tumblers can overthrow a tyrant, and that’s a fantasy as relevant now as it was in 1955.

i did mention the army of circus tumblers, didn’t i?

1 Response to “100 Movie Musicals #26: The Court Jester (1955)”

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