The intro to our showing of ‘The Court Jester’


5th January, 2014


The popularity in the early ‘50s of medieval epics such as IVANHOE, KNIGHTS OF THE ROUND TABLE and QUO VADIS made producers/directors/writers Norman Panama and Mel Frank think the time was right for a spoof.  The challenge was, that do it right, such movies didn’t come cheap.

After much cajoling, Paramount agreed to put up at least $1.5M. So Panama and Frank, set about knocking up a script, loosely based on the legend of Robin Hood.  They envisioned Danny Kaye as their swashbuckling hero.

Kaye plays Hubert Hawkins, a circus clown who is helped by a group of performing midgets. Who would today be referred to as vertically-challenged performers.

Hawkins aspires to be a court jester through a plot development.

Sylvia Fine, Kaye’s wife approved of the basic narrative – the Black Fox’s plot to overthrow the fake king. This plot-line is firmly in place even before Kaye appears in the story.

Making several attempts to infiltrate the castle, Kaye’s character makes many equally valiant attempts but keeps falling on his ass.

Ideally, some footage was to have been shot in Shepperton – no expense was to be spared. Or so they thought…

Sylvia’s music was of the highest quality and Sammy Kahn was assigned as her collaborator.  Initially there were to have been six songs, but things didn’t quite work out that way.

Fine and Kahn began work in the summer of 1954 at the Kaye home. By the time Thanksgiving came (in November), and the cameras were due to roll, they were still at it.  In the end, they composed a dozen songs.  This was because Sylvia wanted to release an LP as a souvenir tie-in of the film. Some songs that did not appear in the film (including “Where Walks My True Love”) ended up being used as underscore. All the songs are on the LP.

Since location shooting of castles and English countryside were dropped for cost-cutting reasons, what we see in the opening scenes with the King and his men and the approach to the castle by Giacomo is in fact the Palo Verde Peninsula in southern California with painted-in “mattes”. An opening scene of the circus carnival in town was dropped – hence the scene we DO see is in the forest with the ensemble cast of “merry men”.  That way three weeks of filming and 22 pages of script were dumped.  HOWEVER, in fact because of the complexities of staging the “Never Outfox The Fox” and its elaborate choreography elements, shooting overran and, by now production costs were running at over $2.5Million.

The Main Hall scene which, because shooting didn’t take place in England, required a huge set to be built on the Paramount back lot with scores of extras. That scene alone cost $424,000!

The main title sequence (“Life Could Not Better Be”) had to be re-filmed five times, but it’s one that I still enjoy each time I see it.

Incidentally, for “They’ll Never Outfox The Fox” scene, at the last minute, Sylivia demanded even more changes to the music and orchestrator Vic Shoen was reported to be tearing his hair out, while extras and cast had to hand around at extra cost. The scene originally budgeted at $120,000 ended up costing $217,900!

The jousting scene is now one of legend but let’s get some facts in place. Danny wasn’t at all happy about having to wear a suit of armour, and really did threaten to walk out!  His spindly legs were a problem as they showed no definition. Costumer Edith Head finally came up with a custom-made aluminium suit, but he hated it even so.

Olympic fencing instructor, Ralph Faulkner was brought in to coach Danny. He was a very quick learner. So much so, that in the duel with Basil Rathbone –himself a master of the epee – found Kaye too quick for him, and in some particularly fast parts, Faulkner stood in for Rathbone.

For the facile-tongued Danny Kaye, word play was a natural gift for him.

Borrowing from a gun-duel scene in the now forgotten 1939 film NEVER SAY DIE which starred Bob Hope, (“There’s a cross on the muzzle of the pistol with the bullet and a scratch on the barrel of the pistol with the blank”)  Panama and Frank plagiarised this into the now legendary “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle.”

Incidentally, when we see the helmet in that scene magnetised as it is hit by lightning, watch for it moving a little as the gaffer in charge of special effects gives it a gentle tug with nylon wire to make sure that it hits Danny’s armour as he reaches out for it!  They had to film that scene 22 times before they got it right!

Despite the film’s greatest asset, Panama and Frank’s s gift for capturing in the screenplay, what Sylvia had been able to encapsulate in her comedy songs for Danny, it lost money. Maybe audiences were not ready for it, despite being generally well-received by critics.

Artistic success was no guarantee to financial success. The film’s final cost was $4M – making it then, the most expensive comedy ever produced.

It took less than half that worldwide at the time, but has since gone on to reap over many millions for Universal in video and DVD sales as well as a regular on TV and the COURT JESTER is now rightly regarded as a true classic of American cinema and one of the greatest comedies ever made!

The two surviving stars of the film are Glynis Johns (now 91) and Angela Lansbury. Angela, who, although born in the UK is now a naturalised American citizen, but was still made a Dame last week. Presumably because of all the murders she solved as “Miss Marple”!

Some of the notes based on research by David Koenig.

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