by John Douglass
When I was about nine years old, my grandparents came to watch my siblings and I for a long weekend while my parents were at the wedding of some old college friends. I have only one recollection of that weekend, but it is a formative one; it involves my grandfather, the public library and the 1956 Danny Kaye musical comedy, The Court Jester.
I grew up in a small Minnesota town and throughout my young life, I absolutely revered the city’s public library. It wasn’t a big building, but it housed untold and undiscovered stories. I was the kind of young reader who methodically made my way through the children’s section (the chapter books, not the picture books—but not yet the “young-adult” ones), starting at A and working my way through the entire alphabet. On the occasions when my family went away together, I would stock my child-sized suitcase—which, as I recall, had a picture of a cartoon boy with a suitcase on it—full of books. On that particular weekend when my parents went away, my grandfather took me to the public library. He was always a very friendly man, and extremely kind, but he was also soft-spoken and carried within himself a weight of potential discipline I’m sure colored our opinion of him as children. Thankfully, I have no memory of that potential ever being realized.
He walked me over to the side of the circulation desk and we paged through a giant three-ring binder filled with old card catalogue-style cards. Apparently, this heretofore undiscovered bible contained a record of the library’s entire film collection, a new fount of untapped potential. I loved movies as a child. My parents rarely allowed us to watch television, and we hardly ever made it to the cinema. This left VHS tapes as the sole outlet through which we had access to what Hollywood had to offer. At that point our home collection consisted mostly of the Disney Classics collection, the Rankin/Bass version of The Hobbit, and the BBC versions of The Chronicles of Narnia. We loved these to death, but at that point it was only through visits to various friends’ houses that we were really able to expand our cinematic education. At least until that day at the public library with my grandfather. That moment changed everything.
At the library, Grandpa turned to the “musicals” section. This genre-specific ordering strikes me today as implausibly romantic. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, only that my apparently egregious ignorance in regard to someone named Danny Kaye was exposed, which led to us heading home with an old VHS tape with a battered brown plastic cover, an early word-processed label stuffed into the plastic sleeve in the front. This was The Court Jester, and I don’t think I’m entirely overstating it to say that my life was never again the same.
The Court Jester is one of a handful of Danny Kaye vehicles from the 1950s, and the one I think is unquestionably the best. And, while I've read about it here and there—and occasionally stumble upon it on some classic movie channel—it appears to remain largely unheralded. I do not understand this. The film is a pastiche of epic swashbuckling tropes, not a spoof exactly, but certainly a farce, and one that plays well in relation to old Errol Flynn-style barnburners. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a sort of entertainer to the troops; a Robin Hood knockoff known dashingly as "The Black Fox", the kind of name no character says without adding an exclamation point.
In a surprisingly meta riff, the opening credits feature Kaye alone on a stage, dressed in the most traditional jester outfit the film will ever feature, singing a delightfully self-aware song about the creation of this particular musical directly to the audience. It’s an audacious breaking of the fourth wall, an acknowledgement of the absurd clichés of the musical as well as a riff on this musical’s status as a film. While Kaye extols the story’s virtues in song, the credits are rolling, and they eventually push him off to the sides and bottom of the frame as he interacts with them in a sort of rudimentary, pre-Dick-Van-Dyke-cavorting-with-animated-penguins way. Throughout this title sequence Kaye is stalked by the name “Basil Rathbone”, in increasingly nefarious fonts, alternatingly cowering in fear and chasing the name away with his jester’s scepter. Rathbone plays Lord Ravenhurst, the foremost “villain full of villainy,” as Kaye sings in the opening number. “This is the bad guy,” the movie says, “and we acknowledge he is both a character and an actor. This is that kind of movie.” Only the movie sings it, in delightfully tongue-twisting rhyme.
It’s the kind of movie that my grandfather loved. He listened to an iPod full of John Phillip Sousa marches as he did his daily two-mile jog the last few years of his life. He wasn’t a man interested in moral ambiguity. And, while we might have differed on that account, he taught me an appreciation for that kind of simplicity—especially when it was presented with an appropriate amount of silliness.
In the film, Kaye’s Hawkins is a crackerjack performer in front of a crowd, but a bit of a milquetoast off stage. At one point, he fumblingly attempts to express his feelings toward his love interest, the Maid Jean, played by Glynis Johns. Just before the couple kisses, after a romantic rainy evening spent in a rustic woodman’s hut, Jean assures Hawkins that, “sometimes tenderness and kindness also make a man…a very rare man.” His lack of traditional masculinity is his defining feature, and it is enough to win him the heart of the fair maiden. I know this is Danny Kaye’s schtick, to a certain extent, but I also like to think that it's one of the reasons my grandfather liked him. I like to think that that kind of vulnerability was something he could admire.
The film’s first big musical number features Hawkins impersonating The Black Fox and singing all sorts of dynamite lyrics—there’s no shortage of them in this film—about how “Those who try to tangle with my derring-do/End up at the angle like herring do,” to which the backing crew of little people (yeah, it’s alsothat kind of movie) echo in unison, “They hold their head like very dead herring do!” After this number, Hawkins is completely emasculated when forced to assume his normal task: holding an infant, the rightful heir to the throne in exile, and pulling down his diaper so that all members of the merry band of outlaws can bow down before the baby’s royal, purple, flower-shaped birthmark, “The Purple Pimpernel.”
The rest of the film features a comically labyrinthine plot of mistaken identities. Hawkins must impersonate the usurper king’s court jester, who is, unbeknownst to Kaye, actually an assassin in disguise hired by Basil Rathbone’s evil Ravenhurst. It’s a comic whirlwind of a performance, as Kaye quickly winds up under the thrall of the castle’s witch, prompting him to drop in and out of a trance in which he becomes the model of a swashbuckling hero with a snap of the fingers (which allows Kaye to literally snap back and forth, at times incredibly rapidly, between the two opposite personas). The dashing, enchanted persona wins the heart of Angela Lansbury’s princess but gets Kaye into a real pickle when their love affair is exposed, to him as well as to the kingdom. If the movie has one defining flaw, it is the criminal underuse of Lansbury, who has little to do other than to serve as a beguiling plot device. Kaye’s is not a subtle performance, and the least bit of reading about Kaye's career certainly implies that subtlety wasn't really his forte, but it works. It really works.
The Court Jester initiated my own, very specific, cultural awakening, kicking off an intense love of movie musicals, as well as musical theater in general. I checked it out from the library again and again. I even stole a copy in high school after the library had finally just given me a job, essentially for being around so much; a VHS copy found its way into the donation bin, and I simply took it home—though to be fair, the library was converting its collection of tapes to DVD at the time, and it likely would have just ended up on the “for sale” cart for a dollar or so, so to call it stealing might be overly generous.
Though the movie and my experience of it was very important to me, I’m not sure what the whole thing ever meant to my grandfather. When I called my grandmother to ask whether she had any memory of the film, or of seeing it with him, all she could remember was that it was “a goofy one.” Maybe my grandfather would remember it that way too. Maybe he wouldn’t even remember it at all. I kind of hope that’s not the case.
My grandfather spent a lot of time in a hospice bed in the four season porch at my parents’ house—the same home in which we'd watched the film together that very first time—watching movies and melodramatic CBS procedurals with my parents. I wish I could have watched The Court Jester again with him in those last days. I regret not being there more as it is. If nothing else, Danny Kaye might have made him laugh; the “Vessel with the Pestle” bit certainly would have.
I think people tend to overlook the sense-memory sort of association that a film—like songs, smells, and certain holiday foods—can carry in its reels. To watch The Court Jester now is to be immediately back in the basement of my parents’ home, burrowed into the scratchy couch next to my siblings and my often stoic grandfather, all of us giggling madly at every pun and pratfall.
I’m not sure he knew it, but I learned a lot from my grandfather over the years, only the least of which was that one could check out movies from a library, or that there was a legendary performer named Danny Kaye, who made a practically perfect movie called The Court Jester. In the film’s most famous musical number, Kaye sings about his fictional journey to become a jester, and notes that he had “no teacher to take me, mold me and make me/a merry man, fool or an elf…but I’m proud to recall that in no time at all/I made a fool of myself.” It's one of the most purely joyful movie musicals in existence, but to this day I can’t watch it without thinking of my grandfather. It’s a lot of weight to put onto such a fluffy movie, but that’s what happens sometimes.
John Douglass spends his day job teaching literature to high schoolers. He lives, works, and enjoys summer in Minneapolis.