Monday, June 27, 2005

Goofy but Great: The Court Jester (1954)

The Siren inaugurates "Goofy but Great" week with The Court Jester, a film loved madly by a small but choice group. There aren't enough of us, but we're out there, fuming that the AFI 100 Best Quotes list found room for "Hasta la vista, baby" (perhaps there were a lot of disgruntled California voters on that panel) but not "The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true."

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!


Lance Mannion said...

Excellent question! Where have all the Mildred Natwicks gone? And the Porter Halls and Charles Coburns and Thomas Mitchells and Jane Darwells and Mischa Auers? (Did I come close to spelling that right?) We've been watchinng a lot of old movies for family movie nights lately---My Darling Clementine, Dodge City, and last week Captain Blood. It's amazing how many speaking roles those movies have. And not cameos or walk ons. Full fledged characters.

By the way, how do you feel about Basil Rathbone in Captain Blood?

You've just convinced me that The Court Jester will be our next family movie night feature.

The Siren said...

I also want back Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Franklin Pangborn, Gail Russell (a rare gorgeous character actress), Edna May Oliver, Fay Bainter, Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton, Thelma Ritter and yes, you did spell Mischa Auer's name right, good show. I'm willing to bet he had it misspelled on credits at least once.

I *love* Captain Blood, I love all of Errol Flynn's movies, even the ones with a huge historical cringe factor like They Died With Their Boots On and The Charge of the Light Brigade. (Come to think of it, they ALL have a big historical cringe factor, but what the hell.) Basil Rathbone was dead sexy in Captain Blood. That one scene with him in an unbuttoned pirate shirt, arm around some wench; well, rowr.

I think that in general, we are a less verbal society and movies reflect it. It's all whiz-bang visuals now and not rat-a-tat dialogue. It's hard to develop minor characters when you're cutting away from them every ten seconds.

I really hope your family enjoys The Court Jester.

Anonymous said...

I bet you have way more than a single digit audience. I myself have a blog, and I'm sending you a link in case you wanna check it out. However, it's quite personal, but I like it that way. :)

I can see why you and that cousin of yours get along so well.... he would love this blog! He loves teaching me about classic movies. :)

Love and Hugs,

The Siren said...

Hey Sara, do give me your blog link. I'll send that cousin of mine a link. :)

Annieytown said...

I knew this was going to be a great week!
I am so happy and excited you mentioned Thelma Ritter.

hook said...

Get it?
Got it.

(not on the list either)