Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 19, 2021)
An enormous star in his day, Danny Kaye seems largely forgotten in modern culture, perhaps because he essentially retired young. After he appeared in the slew of movies throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Kaye only made three movies during the 1960s, though he did star in his own variety show from 1963-1967.
Kaye worked infrequently in any format from the 1970s until his death in 1987. As a kid in that era, I knew Kaye as a general entertainment personality, but I don’t think I ever saw a single Kaye movie outside of 1954’s White Christmas.
Until 1955’s The Court Jester arrived on my door, that is. Apparently the film didn’t do well on its initial release, but it earned a following over the years, and that resulted in this “Paramount Presents” Blu-ray.
When wicked King Roderick I (Cecil Parker) usurps the throne of England, the Black Fox (Edward Ashley) leads a crusade to restore the rightful ruler, an infant with a peculiar birthmark on his bottom. To achieve this goal, the Black Fox needs to pilfer a key that opens a secret tunnel.
Entrusted to protect the baby, kindly Hubert Hawkins comes up with a plan whereby he’ll impersonate Roderick’s jester and steal the key. This leads to a wide series of adventures as Hubert attempts to pull off his mission.
As that synopsis hints, Jester bears more than a few debts to the legend of Robin Hood. Indeed, we even find Basil Rathbone as one of the primary baddies, and he also took on a similar part in 1938’s classic Adventures of Robin Hood.
That said, Jester doesn’t come across as a carbon copy of that film or others of the genre. It seems like a spinoff, kind of a movie that follows one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men.
Whatever inspirations we find, Jester usually feels like less of an attempt to rework the Robin Hood legend and more an outlet to showcase Kaye’s talents. And make no mistake: Kaye certainly boasted obvious skills as singer, dancer and actor.
So why does his shtick leave me cold? Whatever charms Kaye possesses, he can’t make Jester more than a silly confection.
Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with fluffy comedic musicals, and in theory, Jester should offer a winning effort. With its mix of laughs, romance, songs and action, it seems like an appealing prospect.
However, Jester often feels less like a coherent movie and more like a showcase for Kaye’s talents. He dominates the film, and the end result frequently seems to bend over backwards to highlight his skills.
As such, Jester can play more like a conglomeration of semi-connected scenes and musical numbers more than like a strong narrative. The flick flits from one Kaye song or comedic routine to another without great coherence.
If writers/directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama worked harder to turn this into a real movie and less a showreel for Kaye, it could’ve worked. The film boasts plenty of room for wacky antics and lively action that could – and should – turn it into an entertaining program.
As it stands, however, Jester feels like a missed opportunity. The movie doesn’t come with enough wit or charm to allow it to prosper.