The Court Jester

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The Court Jester
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Melvin Frank
Norman Panama
Produced by Melvin Frank
Norman Panama
Written by Melvin Frank
Norman Panama
Starring Danny Kaye
Glynis Johns
Basil Rathbone
Angela Lansbury
Cecil Parker
Cinematography Ray June
Edited by Tom McAdoo
Dena Enterprises
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Release date(s)
  • December 24, 1955 (1955-12-24) (Japan)
  • January 27, 1956 (1956-01-27) (USA)
Running time 101 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $4 million
Box office $2.2 million (US)[1]

The Court Jester is a 1955 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.

Danny Kaye received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Motion Picture Actor - Comedy/Musical.

Made for a cost of $4 million in the fall of 1955, it was the most expensive comedy film produced at the time.[2][3] 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.[4] Since then, it has become a television matinee favorite. The film contains the famous exchange: "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).

In 2000, The Court Jester was listed at #98 on the American Film Institute's list of 100 Years... 100 Laughs. In 2004, The Court Jester was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


Set in medieval England, the plot nominally concerns the struggle to restore to the throne the rightful heir, a baby with a distinguishing birthmark, the purple pimpernel on His Highness' posterior, after the King and his family were massacred. Danny Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, an ex-carnival entertainer who becomes minstrel to the Black Fox, a Robin Hood-type character (Edward Ashley).

The usurping King Roderick (Cecil Parker) wishes his daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), to marry his neighbor, Sir Griswold of MacElwain (Robert Middleton), to enlist Griswold's aid against the band of rebels headed by the Black Fox. Princess Gwendolyn refuses. 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.

Hawkins is ordered with a female comrade, Maid Jean (Glynis Johns), one of the Fox's lieutenants, to carry the child across the country to safety. The pair are disguised as an old man and his granddaughter, with the baby hidden in a wine cask. Roderick's men intercept their wagon and threaten to uncover the plot, but Hawkins manages to frustrate them by pretending to be hard of hearing, and Maid Jean to be mute and deaf. On the journey, a romance blossoms between Hawkins and Maid Jean. They encounter the King's new jester, "Giacomo, 'King of Jesters and Jester of Kings'" (John Carradine) on his way to the castle and knock him out. Hawkins impersonates him, hoping to gain entry to the King's castle. The plan is to steal the key to a secret passage into the castle, through which the Black Fox could then attack. Already present in the castle is Fergus (Noel Drayton), a rebel working as an ostler, whom Hawkins is to identify by means of a secret tune. Hawkins whistles it throughout the castle, and Fergus whistles back, but Hawkins mistakes him for Lord Ravenhurst.

Hawkins is, however, unaware that the jester he is impersonating is also a famous assassin whom Lord Ravenhurst plans to employ against his rivals. Maid Jean is captured by the King's men, who have been sent to round up pretty young girls to decorate the tournament. At the castle, she entrusts the infant into the care of Fergus. Matters become more complicated when Griselda hypnotizes Hawkins to avoid death by her princess' hands for her as yet unfulfilled promises; Hawkins inadvertently introduces Jean to the king, who takes a fancy to her, and gets the key lost, Gwendolyn infatuated with him, and Ravenhurst entrusting him with taking out his rivals, only to have his memory erased by Griselda afterwards. She also kills Ravenhurst's competitors Brockhurst, Finsdale and Pertwee according to her own agenda, but it is also within Lord Ravenhurst's agenda and Ravenhurst mistakes the poisoning as being Hawkins' doing.

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. Meanwhile, Ravenhurst and his fellows have learned that Hawkins is an impostor, but wrongfully assume that he is the Black Fox himself; they also find out that Maid Jean is one of the rebels and that the royal heir is in the castle. 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.

Jean uses her confidence with the king to steal back the key and send it to her band, although 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 passage, it collapses, leaving only a small crawlspace. The Black Fox decides to summon Hawkins' friends, a troupe of acrobatic dwarfs he had met earlier, from the carnival and sends them through the passage for a diversionary attack.

Hawkins becomes a knight, and Griswold immediately challenges him to a joust to the death. Griselda tries poisoning one of the drinks to be used for the toast immediately before the joust, but through one of his men Griswold also learns of the poison, and after a quarrel between the two combatants about the unpoisoned drink the toast is cancelled. Against all odds, Hawkins wins the joust because his armor was incidentally magnetized by a lightning bolt, but he refuses to deliver the coup de grâce. Ravenhurst denounces Hawkins and Maid Jean to the King. Hawkins's friends, who have secretly entered the court 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 - some of the time. Ravenhurst is finally hurled out of the castle into the sea via catapult.

Griswold returns to defend the King, but Hawkins reveals the infant king's birthmark to him and to his men. The former enemies all pledge allegiance to the true king, Griswold and Gwendolyn become enamored with each other, and Hawkins leads everyone in one last chorus of "Life could not better be".



Awards and honors[edit]

American Film Institute recognition


  • "(You'll Never) Outfox the Fox" (words by Sammy Cahn, music by Sylvia Fine)
  • "I'll Take You Dreaming" (words by Sammy Cahn, music by Sylvia Fine)
  • "My Heart Knows a Lovely Song" (words and music by Sammy Cahn & Sylvia Fine)
  • "Pass the Basket" (words by Sammy Cahn, music by Sylvia Fine)
  • "Where Walks My True Love?" (words by Sammy Cahn, music by Sylvia Fine)
  • "Maladjusted Jester" (words and music by Sylvia Fine)
  • "Life Could Not Better Be" (words and music by Sammy Cahn & Sylvia Fine)
  • "I Live to Love" (words by Sammy Cahn, music by Sylvia Fine, deleted from the film but included on the soundtrack album)

Musical score[edit]

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 films), 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.


  1. ^ 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1956', Variety Weekly, January 2, 1957
  2. ^ Danny Kaye Summary
  3. ^ Turner Classic Movies. Notes for The Court Jester
  4. ^ Robert Osborne. On-air comments for The Court Jester airing March 15, 2008.

External links[edit]