Things start slowly, with a couple of mildly funny songs and an awful lot of exposition. Danny Kaye is an acrobat who has signed up with a group of fearless guerrillas in the forest who are trying to put the real King (an infant) back on the throne of England during some vaguely medieval time period involving multicolored men's tights, off-the-shoulder women's fashions, troops of midgets and a full orchestra ready to chime in if you happen to feel like singing. Finally Kaye and Glynis Johns (looking sexily feline, and nothing at all like Mrs. Banks from Mary Poppins) set out with the baby king hidden in a wine cask. After that it's pure joy, as Kaye winds up impersonating a court jester to get into the palace.
Lance Mannion had a recent post where he asked where all the true stars have gone. The Siren has a different question. Where, I ask you, are the Mildred Natwicks? Nowadays the studios pay $20 million or whatever for Jim Carrey, and once they pay that you are by God going to get Jim Carrey in every frame, I don't care if it's a childbirth scene in a women's prison, we'll get Carrey in there somewhere. Star vehicles have no room for a superb character actress like Natwick, mud-fence homely but perfect in every role. Here she plays a witch working for Angela Lansbury's bratty princess. Natwick tells Kaye that the princess "finds you passing fair, passing graceful." "Tell her thanks very much," says Kaye, "but I'm just passing through."
Undeterred, Natwick puts Kaye under a spell. With a snap of her fingers, she can change him from a milquetoast into Errol Flynn and back again. And the Siren means really Errol Flynn. The spell Natwick casts on Kaye, via screenwriter-directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, sums up a lot of men you only meet on a movie screen:
You are a figure of romance, spirited in action, but at the same time, humble and tender. You are a man of iron, with the soul of a poet. Adventurous, gay, but with a lover's brooding melancholy. And above all, you must show passion ... [Kaye does a classic dip-and-buss on Natwick] Not ME, you fool!
Kaye executes a Tarzan swing over to the princess's quarters, proclaims himself "a lover of beauty, and a beauty of a lover," and by this time the Siren usually pauses her DVD to catch her breath after laughing herself silly.
Which brings up another point. Theater actors do a lot of "holding for laughs"--pausing to let the audience chuckle, then proceeding with the next line. You see supremely bad examples of this each year at the Oscars, as presenters hold for the tepid laughs from the dumb teleprompter jokes about Best Sound Effects Editing. Live audiences also mean you see it a lot on sitcoms, and the technique has spilled over into film comedies. I see so many movies where the laughs are practically stenciled in with intertitles, followed by nice long pauses so the audience can finish chortling and grab their next handful of Junior Mints.
In the Golden Age, there were a lot of scriptwriters and directors who didn't give a hoot if you missed the next laugh. Billy Wilder didn't, Howard Hawks sure as hell didn't, and Frank and Panama and Kaye and the rest of The Court Jester didn't either. I suppose at 1954 ticket prices they figured you could buy another ticket and sit through it again if you missed something.
So the laughs come faster and faster, with people snapping the hypnotized Danny Kaye in like Flynn and out again. Basil Rathbone (the Siren's choice of sex symbol from The Adventures of Robin Hood, and looking awesome for age 64) plays the villain. Rathbone hired the jester that Kaye is impersonating because the real jester is actually a paid assassin, get it? Got it? Good. And if you don't, that's okay, the plot makes little sense anyway. You want plot, rent The Usual Suspects. You want goofy but great, buy The Court Jester. It's only $14.99 most places, and this movie couldn't possibly better be.
Signing off for today, it's the Siren ... I live for a sigh, I die for a laugh, I lust for a laugh, ha ha!