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Danny Kaye shot to screen stardom in 1947 with the popular comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The designation of instant success, however, was met with bemusement by the actor, who commented, "You bet I arrived overnight. Over a few hundred nights in the Catskills, in vaudeville, in clubs and on Broadway." The feeling that film audiences had yet to see the "real" Danny Kaye was the motivation behind establishing Dena Productions, a venture between Kaye, director Norman Panama, and writer Melvin Frank. Named after Kaye's daughter and funded by Paramount Pictures, Dena Productions sought to "prove that films can capture the quality of spontaneity that Kaye reveals onstage to an audience."
Their first effort, Knock on Wood (1954), contained promising glimpses of the company's mission, but it wasn't until the second try that Kaye would have his due. The Court Jester, released in 1956, showed Kaye at the top of his game, backed by a stellar supporting cast that included Angela Lansbury, Basil Rathbone, and Glynis Johns. The ambitious production hit Paramount's operating budget with a 4 million dollar price tag, only to be topped by its enormous belly flop at the box office, grossing only 2.2 million. Despite the film's impressive onscreen pedigree, critics were kind but rather cool. Since its release, however, The Court Jester has come to be regarded as possibly Kaye's finest film with some classic comedy routines that have entered the annals of film history.
A burlesque parody of the medieval genre, The Court Jester highlighted Kaye's gift for physical comedy. Co-star Lansbury observed in the Kaye bio Nobody's Fool by Martin Gottfried, "His use of hands was inspired by commedia dell'arte, and in the way he moved, he was absolutely originalhe was one off the mold." His hands may have been divine, but Kaye didn't hold his legs in such high regard: according to his bio, the actor employed some extra help, "wearing 'symmetricals'- stockings padded with sponge rubber to fatten up spindly legs." His vanity, however, was quickly overshadowed by his verbal talents. His ability to effortlessly maneuver through tongue-twisters was put to good use with the scene that became one of comic legend - the alliterative skit known as "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice with the palace has the brew that's true". With respected character actress Mildred Natwick--a favorite of director John Ford - and interjections from Johns, the routine delighted audiences. Kaye's daughter Dena once commented that for the rest of her father's life, enthusiastic fans would recite the entire scene aloud upon encountering him in public.
The outstanding supporting cast of The Court Jester undoubtedly played a heavy hand into its ultimate success. As the Gottfried bio points out, "In this picture, he works with the actors instead of in front of them." Second billing went to Johns, who earned an Oscar® nomination for The Sundowners (1960), a film that also featured her father, Mervyn Johns. Her most memorable role, perhaps, is that of the feisty suffragette mother in Mary Poppins (1964). Basil Rathbone made a career out of sword-wielding villains - a tradition he continues in this film--before redefining Sherlock Holmes in no less than 14 films from 1939 to 1946. Rathbone was considered Hollywood's finest swordsman, and his talent is evident in the film. His talents were carefully observed by Kaye; according to one account, "With his quick reflexes and his extraordinary sense of mime, which enabled him to imitate easily anything seen once, Kaye could outfence Rathbone after a few weeks of instruction."
Angela Lansbury, forever known to fans as mystery solver Jessica Fletcher in the long-running television series Murder, She Wrote (1984-96), continued her upward trajectory started with films like Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). The Court Jester was a welcome respite for the actress, who increasingly attracted roles that portrayed her as older - the greatest example would come in later years with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), in which she played the mother of an actor despite only being three years older than him in real life!
Lansbury's biography Balancing Act, also by Martin Gottfried, says of Jester, "It allowed her to play not only a princess, but a princess her own age. She was made up to look young and lovely. She got to wear beautiful clothes that showed off her fine, slender figure." Lansbury had the keenest insights into the group's dynamic and of the legend himself, observing in the Kaye bio that "Danny wasn't an ensemble player - he was the one around whom everyone danced, and we all dressed to him." But for an actor who was known to be temperamental, she recalled, "We never stopped laughing. There was none of that moodiness he could have elsewhere, that abruptness, ignoring people. If something interested him, sparked him, he came alive. The minute that was over, he was closed for business, which I think is true of many of the great comic performers. They are constantly out to lunch. Where they are, I don't know."
Producer: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Director: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Screenplay: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama
Cinematography: Ray June
Film Editing: Tom McAdoo
Art Direction: Roland Anderson, Hal Pereira
Music: Sylvia Fine, Vic Schoen
Cast: Danny Kaye (Hubert Hawkins), Glynis Johns (Maid Jean), Basil Rathbone (Sir Ravenhurst), Angela Lansbury (Princess Gwendolyn), Cecil Parker (King Roderick I), Mildred Natwick (Griselda).
by Eleanor Quin