Back in the 1950s, Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester was the most expensive comedy ever made – here’s the story behind a swashbuckling spoof.
“The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.”
‘One of a kind’ is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, but few Hollywood comedies wear it as well as The Court Jester. Although it met a less-than-warm critical and financial reception upon its original release in 1955, this Danny Kaye vehicle has enjoyed a well-deserved reappraisal for its quick vaudeville stylings and infectious hilarity over time.
Here in the UK, it’s best known from TV showings over the years and it’s more recently been in rotation on the mighty Talking Pictures TV. In the US at least, it’s getting the Blu-ray treatment for the first time for its 65th anniversary this year, which has got us thinking about it again.
For those who may be unfamiliar, this medieval musical farce is a spoof of old-fashioned Robin Hood and Zorro films, but the traditional hero, Edward Ashley’s Black Fox, is pre-occupied for most of the action. Instead, the battle to return the English throne to its infant heir is led by buffoonish minstrel Hubert Hawkins, (Kaye) the king’s humble babysitter, who infiltrates the baddies’ lair by posing as a renowned jester.
Playing to Kaye’s strengths, the film is celebrated for its musical numbers, its rapid-fire patter, and of course, its musical numbers. The supporting cast includes Glynis Johns as the Maid Marian surrogate, Angela Lansbury as a spoiled princess, Cecil Parker as the phoney king, and Basil Rathbone making an impeccable straight man as the dastardly royal adviser.
Oh, and there’s a troupe of all-dancing, all-fighting dwarfs waiting for a big scrap at the end.
Combining comedy and historical epic, it’s a genre hybrid that’s almost without precedent. Beyond its mad stacking of running jokes and punchlines all the way up to the riotous finale, it’s miraculous that it turned out as magnificent as it did, when production ran well past its allotted time and budget and generally got out of hand in much the same manner as Hubert’s exploits do…
The story begins…
Coming to screen stardom out of the vaudeville theatre tradition, Kaye was established as a movie star when he came to a two-picture deal with Paramount in the 1950s. The first was the 1954 spy comedy Knock On Wood, which eventually earned its writer-directors, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, an Oscar nomination for Best Writing, Story, and Screenplay.
The top bods at Paramount were impressed by how the film was coming along even before it hit cinemas, and they quickly roped Kaye in at short notice to co-star with Bing Crosby in White Christmas, also drafting in Panama and Frank to rewrite the festive film’s script to suit his screen presence.
Along with his songwriting wife Sylvia Fine, Kaye had set up his own company, Dena Productions, with the express goal of creating film vehicles that played to his stage-honed comedic talents. Reuniting with Panama and Frank, Kaye approached Paramount with The Court Jester, at a point when big-budget epic comedies were not common at all.
Having had a huge hit with White Christmas, Paramount greenlit the film as part of another two-picture deal, with an eye on a potential Knock On Wood sequel in the future if the first one did well. The studio okayed a budget of around $2.5 million – an astronomical sum for a comedy film at the time – and a 48-day shooting schedule, plus 10 days of rehearsal, started in July 1954.
While most Hollywood comedies at this time were usually quite cheap to produce, (as the oft-quoted Charlie Chaplin line goes, you can make a comedy with just “a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl”) the film’s approach to spoofing the big swashbuckling adventures of years gone by required proper production value, from the costumes to the large sets, not to mention all the cast members required to populate it.
Ahead of the film starting principal photography, The New York Times reported that its two biggest sets – the castle interior and the courtyard – had cost $200,000 to erect across two separate soundstages at Paramount.
By the time the film hit screens, that budget ballooned considerably.
For reasons too funny to spoil here, there’s a sequence in the film where Hubert becomes the world’s greatest swordsman, but only for short intervals. Kaye’s hilariously untrained swordplay involves lots of flinching and hacking, and from the sounds of it, so did the pre-production period.
Even with a large budget in place, Panama and Frank could tell before principal photography started that they were in danger of going many hundreds of thousands over their budget, and so started pre-emptively cutting scenes and songs out of the film. For instance, one of the casualties was a more ambitious opening involving Hubert and the dwarfs doing a circus routine.
Shooting eventually started in November, rather than July, but the delay didn’t stop the budget ticking upwards as production continued. Several of the songs written by Fine and Sammy Cahn still make it into the film, and more than one of them involves breathless choreography and dozens of actors in costume – just look at the set photo above, which comes from the end of one of those numbers.
Many of the scenes without songs here could be the biggest sequence in a film of their own, never mind the musical numbers. For the sheer density of jokes and stunts, it’s an ambitious undertaking even by today’s standards.
Time wasn’t on the film’s side either, and the crew and soundstages were needed for other films as The Court Jester went dramatically over-schedule.
For various reasons, the film’s cinematographer, second-unit director, and choreographer were all replaced throughout production. Costlier still, the scheduled shooting for The Ten Commandments interrupted filming, which meant the sets had to be taken down and put back up again, all of which added thousands more onto the budget.
While the musical sequences are ambitious and the tongue-twisting wordplay even more so, the dazzling third act proved the biggest challenge during shooting. Appreciating that some readers may still not have watched it, we don’t want to get too specific, not least because enumerating the time and money lost on rehearsing the physical and verbal gymnastics of the tournament scene, or replacing the malfunctioning giant catapult in the finale, would be missing the jokes entirely.
All told, the film took 76 days to shoot, plus 18 days of rehearsal time, and another 18 days of second-unit filming. Post-production proved challenging too, with self-taught composer Vic Schoen effectively learning on the job to synchronise his first movie score with the madcap action and songs that made it into the theatrical cut.
Legendary composer Elmer Bernstein had an early, uncredited gig as assistant music director on the film and by all accounts, it was a baptism of fire for the whole music department.
The total negative cost of the film is estimated at close to $4m – adjusted for inflation, that would just about buy you a modern mid-budget comedy like Game Night, ($37m in 2018 dollars) but this was an unprecedented sum for a comedy at the time. When Life Magazine featured the film in an issue previewing The Court Jester’s January 1956 release, it was billed simply as “the most expensive comedy movie produced to date.”
Put simply, the finished film is rightly hailed as a comic masterpiece today, but it wasn’t regarded that way in contemporary reviews. There’s a level of snark towards Kaye personally in some of those reviews, with a piece in The New Yorker calling him a “big boy and a big-league comedian” who should be better than this, adding that the film “wasn’t half so funny as the things it tries to spoof”.
Although Kaye earned a well-deserved Best Actor nomination at that year’s Golden Globe Awards, the film’s box office went along with its critical reception, and The Court Jester pulled in just $2.2m in early 1956. Enthusiasm for a Knock On Wood sequel cooled at Paramount, and Panama and Frank would later repurpose their script for Knock On Silk as 1962’s The Road To Hong Kong, the last in the long-running series of Road To… films starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
Meanwhile, Kaye had a few more film roles after this, and later hosted an eponymous TV variety show, The Danny Kaye Show, which ran from 1963 to 1967 and took The Court Jester’s main title “Life Could Not Better Be” as its theme song.
The brew that is true
If the goal with The Court Jester was to make a film that put across Kaye’s stage presence more effectively on screen, it’s an unqualified success. Arguably the star’s masterpiece, it’s a gently anarchic but universally enjoyable parody that has been eagerly circulated by parents and grandparents to newer viewers.
Happily, its critical stock has risen too, with the United States Film Registry selecting it for preservation as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” work in 2004.
It’s slightly pat nowadays to observe that the more expensive a film is, the funnier it isn’t. That may be true of the current most expensive film ever made, the deeply unfunny swashbuckling sequel, Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, ($410m, if you don’t count UK tax credits, and it’s still the most expensive even if you do) but happily, that’s not the case here.
While we’re on the subject of that particular franchise, this is the furthest thing from a star vehicle run amok. Kaye is spectacular here, but the supporting cast has to match him in order for the towering farce to hold up. Whether it’s the funny, self-possessed female characters played by Johns and Lansbury, or Rathbone’s hissably competent villain, the terrific ensemble rolls deep.
Although the film’s production overran and cost more for it, that’s only the result of a creative team being unleashed on a project that was genuinely original in its time. It’s hard to imagine this kind of stacking of gags upon gags (that tournament scene!) ever surviving the modern studio-noting process.
It looks like it was a nightmare to make, for sure, but the overall effect of The Court Jester is nothing short of magical.
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