Grade: B+/A-
Adventure Comedy
Not rated (would be G)

The Robin Hood legend gets a makeover and a different focal character in The Court Jester (1956), one of Danny Kaye’s best. Along with Bob Hope’s The Princess and the Pirate, it’s also one of the classic costume comedies from the Technicolor era.

Once you get past a slightly corny title-sequence song sung onscreen by Kaye, this medieval musical comedy-adventure is full of pageantry and fun. Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a minstrel among merry men who hide in the forest and serve a Robin Hood figure known as The Black Fox. Aside from providing entertainment, Hawkins’ main job is to attend to the true king of England—a baby that somehow escaped the slaughter ordered by King Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker) by his henchman, Lord Ravenhurst. That includes changing diapers and pulling said diaper down to reveal a “purple pimpernel” (a takeoff on The Scarlet Pimpernel) to each subject, who then kneels.

Despite his own timidity, Hawkins yearns for a more active and manly job. He finally gets his chance when he’s ordered to team with the swashbuckling Maid Jean (Glynis Johns) and take the child to safety after the group’s forest lair had been discovered. What follows is a clever plot with more twists than a French braid and running gags involving mistaken identity, slapstick, tongue twisters, and snappy catch-phrases.

At $4 million, The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy filmed to date, and it has a lot of elements that still make it appealing for family viewing. Colorful costumes by Edith Head really pop in high definition and bring to life the grandeur of Hollywood’s romantic vision of castles and courtly intrigues. There’s a petulant princess (Angela Lansbury, Bedknobs and Broomsticks) who refuses to marry a blustery Scotsman just so her father can form a political alliance. That princess has an attendant (Mildred Natwick) who is also a sorceress capable of hypnotizing people. And there is a troupe of little persons (billed as Hermine’s Midgets) that perform acrobatics and clever stunts that factor heavily in the family-friendly action. The American Legion Zoaves from Jackson, Michigan even make an entertaining appearance in a sequence where a knighthood ceremony is comically rendered.

Then, of course, there are deliberate allusions to Robin Hood, with Basil Rathbone appearing as Ravenhurst in a role parallel to the one he played as Errol Flynn’s nemesis (including a reprise of the famous candle-slicing duel). Veteran character actor John Carradine appears briefly as Giacomo, an Italian jester hired by Ravenhurst to assassinate three rival knights so that the King’s closest advisor can come closer to taking over the kingdom himself—shades of Disney’s Jafar. But when Hawkins takes Giacomo’s place and he and Maid Jean enter the palace, the misunderstandings and comic outcomes begin to pile up.

Kaye is at his singing, dancing, and comic swashbuckling best in this delightful film, which has a 7.9 out of 10 rating at and a 97 percent “fresh” rating at It’s as witty and clever and amusing as a jester had to be in order to keep his head.

To tell any more of the plot would be to spoil the fun, but I will say this: Don’t be surprised if your children suddenly start mumbling “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true” or saying to each other, “Get it?” “Got it.” “Good.”

When I interviewed Kaye’s daughter, Dena, in 2013 for Movie Metropolis, she told me how much she loved The Court Jester and that the family had been “in a long discussion with Paramount” because the studio said the original print of the film wasn’t in good enough condition. That problem was clearly solved, because this Paramount 65th Anniversary release, beautifully remastered from a 6K film transfer of the original VistaVision negative, looks absolutely stunning. The Court Jester, made as a family film, is still lots of fun and should be a contender for repeat play.

Entire family: Yes
Run time: 101 min., Color
Studio/Distributor: Paramount
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1 widescreen
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA Mono
Bonus features: C+
Amazon link
Not rated (would be G)

Language: 1/10—“Wench” is the closest anyone comes to using profanity

Sex: 1/10—A man and woman kiss, an infant’s bare butt is shown, some women have low-cut dresses, and a man kisses a woman’s arm

Violence: 2/10—Four bloodless deaths, a few bloodless swordfights, a bloodless and comic jousting match, brief talk of torture, and one woman threatens another with a knife (but tied to comedy)

Adult situations: 1/10—An unmarried man and woman awkwardly spend the night fully clothed; some drinking and toasting

Takeaway: It’s great to finally watch Kaye’s best film in high definition