Thursday, January 21, 2016

MOVIE REVIEW & DISCUSSION - The Court Jester (1955) [AKA: Why I may like a certain male/female dynamic]

Before we get too far along in this, let me say this is one of my favorite films ever. A comedy that still makes me laugh every time I watch it. I scoured Amazon for a DVD copy being that no store had one, despite its awesomeness. But yes, at last I own my own! Because I loved it so much I would regularly rent it previously. But now it's mine, MINE, ALL MINE, HAHAHAHAHA! 

I hope you'll forgive me for having the love I have for this film coming out so thickly, but I hope that maybe this long post can shed some light on why I treasure it so.  SPOILER WARNING: Please be forewarned that I'll be talking about the ENTIRE film, giving away the ending and all. If you have any interest in seeing it before I spoil all the good bits, I suggest you find a copy to watch first!

To start, it's a period piece, where the Black Fox is a masked vigilante (think like Robin Hood), trying to serve justice as the current king has unlawfully taken over the throne. The true heir is only a baby, recognizable as royalty by having the royal birthmark, the purple pimpernel! The Black Fox's men are keeping the child safe, and the main character played by Danny Kaye, Hawkins, has the job of showing off the baby's bottom to new recruits. 

When he mentioned that wouldn't it be better if a woman does it, the Black Fox tells him "each one serves as best he can." Hawkins is a former carnival performer, and has a bunch of little people who are his friends from it (though they can't join because they can't fight).

Anyway, Hawkins is sent with the captain of the troop to take the royal baby to a safe place. The captain is Jean, played by Glynis Johns (who also played Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, something cool I didn't know until writing this post! Research is awesome!), whom Hawkins has a major crush on. I love that he accepts her authority, always being all "Yes Captain" when she tells him to do something or whatnot. Actually kind of reminds me of the Princess Bride's "as you wish" heh. You get the feel that she kind of likes him, but it takes a rainy night and a heart-to-heart conversation to get them talking about a close relationship. Of course, then she tries to be sensible about that they shouldn't until the real king is safely on the throne.

This is the first thing that I can see how it triggered certain likes and dislikes I have now. I like seeing guys devoted to their ladies. Where they are the ones who stare and have to look away, or blush and titter nervously. When they ask for a kiss rather than taking one. So anyway, they get interrupted by another traveler seeking shelter from the storm. The great Giacomo, newly arrived from Italy, here to serve the King as his court jester. They hint at each other what to do without having to talk about their plan (something that indicates they are close if they can do that pretty quick). Hawkins is unwilling to knock out Giacomo, so Jean has to do it. I wish I could find a pic, but pretty much she bashes a log against his head (shadow play, was it too violent to show onscreen at the time?). Now Hawkins can pretend to be Giacomo, get chummy with the king, and steal a key that could help the Black Fox's men get into the castle via a hidden passageway. They separate, her with the baby hidden in a secret compartment in their wine cart, and Hawkins to the castle as Giacomo!

At the castle, he whistles a special tune that's a way for this vigilante troop to recognize each other in searching for an inside man, but mistakenly thinks it is Sir Ravenhurst. He's played by Basil Rathbone so that tells you what side he's on. He has his own nefarious plans, and the true Giacomo is a part of them, so the two have no idea something is much amiss.

The king is curious about Giacomo, but Hawkins being Danny Kaye, he talks his way out of it splendidly. By saying everything and nothing at the same time.

OK, so in the meantime Jean had been caught as one of those aforementioned wenches but at least she make contact with the inside man, who can hide the baby while she has to go be bathed and dressed before tonight. The king has been making plans with some guys of other regions to gain strength, one of which he wants his daughter to marry (she is played by the young and beautiful Angela Lansbury), Sir Griswold. She doesn't want to because her maid Griselda has been telling her stories of true love. The maid sees an opportunity here so she enchants Hawkins into thinking he's super suave and that he will charm the princess. The magic is turned off/on with a finger snap.


While he's enchanted and swinging about the exterior of the castle like a badass after saying goodbye to Gwendolyn, he meets up with Ravenhurst and accepts the job of assassinating three of those guys the king wants to make a deal with. Then he has to take down Sir Griswold. When he gets back to his room, Griselda makes him forget everything. 

Later during the dinner, he performs as a jester. Take note that though this a musical comedy, pretty much all the songs don't detract anything from the film, they only enhance the scene they're in. There's lots of stuff going on around with Jean and the baby, so he has to do a number to distract everyone.

During all this, Griselda hears those three guys talking about how they have to make absolutely sure that the princess marries Griswold. She poisons their drinks, and they die. Ravenhurst is just super impressed with "Giacomo", telling him to proceed to Plan Two. Sir Griswold arrives and it's discovered that the princess' clandestine lover is Giacomo. Griswold (Robert Middleton) demands satisfaction, since he can't challenge a commoner to mortal combat like he would a real knight.

Of course Ravenhurst suggests to the king that they knight the jester, because he's thinking this is ALL PART OF THE PLAN. I'll give you three guesses which one is Hawkins.

Now a knight, he challenges Griswold to mortal combat (Jean told him the Black Fox would come and fight in his place). Through this arrives one of the most loved and quoted scenes of Danny Kaye's cinematic career. It's technically two parts, but I'll only put the first one here.

Suffice to say, it doesn't work out. Ravenhurst, because of a something one of his friends tells him, outs Hawkins as.... the Black Fox! 

Lots of stuff happens, leading up to a battle thanks to the forest group and Hawkins' small friends swinging about, knocking heads and taking names. Then Hawkins must fight against Ravenhurst. Griselda is around and spells him so he is suddenly a fencing master (but as before, it comes and goes with a finger snap). I remember reading that Kaye took fencing lessons because he wanted to parody appropriately. And I believe Rathbone was an experienced fencer, but he had to let the fight choreographer do quite a bit since he was 63 to the time of filming. 

In the end, two little people distract Ravenhurst, Hawkins bodily flips him onto a catapult thing, and Jean sends him flying. The real heir is presented to everyone including the false king, they all bow to their real liege, and it ends with the short song based on the opening song with Hawkins and Jean holding hands and everyone seems happy to join in the chorus. 

A delightful romp in silliness of which I have tried to spare you most of the jokes because if you know the plot there should still be something you have to look forward to in watching! So yeah, if you can't tell, I absolutely love this movie for almost every little thing. But enough of me going over the film; how's about some actual discussion now!

I saw this film early as a preteen and I think it helped get me to realize women could be quite awesome on their own, despite it being filmed in the 1950's. Jean never really loses her cool. She reaches points where she's obviously concerned things are just not going according to plan, but she never gives up to feel sorry for herself. She doesn't wait to be rescued by someone else. She works through things as best she can, sometimes figuring out crazy but effective ways to protect herself or do what needs to be done.

Gwendolyn wants romance and true love, but that's a decision she's made by herself. She doesn't have a lot of negotiating power against her father, which is why she has to threaten her own life to demand she get what she wants. But then she also threatens her dear Griselda's life TWICE because she wants that love (the first because she thinks Griselda has been lying to her, and the second for Giacomo/Hawkin's life). This is a serious, goal oriented princess who will not let her ambitions be denied.

And then Griselda acts more like one of the evil characters, but more for her own protection than other gain. She doesn't wiat for others to do something, she gets stuff done herself! She sees her chance when she first hears Giacomo around, and she enchants him to fall in love with the princess. She doesn't care about his wants (and dare I say, his consent), only how this can benefit her. She hasn't done this before, so maybe she was waiting for Gwendolyn to find someone on her own to fall in love with, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Oh yeah, and poisoning the three guys without even a blink of an eye.

These three women are not the norm when it comes to period films. Despite two of them having some moral ambiguity, they are all strongly written in that they have goals they work towards. Two are towards a man, and the film does fail the Bechdel test, but you could see they are certainly not just sexy lamps in this. The film is far from perfect, but it does give quite a different feel to the more traditional romantic storylines and gender roles. Though Gwendolyn looks like she's reconsidering Griswold at the very end, it could be construed as being merely one of those scenes for the entire cast to be in. They all did just swear fealty to the baby-king, but not one is trying to tar and feather her or the former king, right?

Speaking of gender roles... Hawkins really just wants to get through all this madness, hopefully by initially looking like a super cool fighter so he can either impress Jean (not that likely in that she'd still outrank him), or just prove himself at least minimally competent (more feasible). He has to let Jean handle a violent situation that looked like it make him uncomfortable or maybe even queasy. He lets Jean make the decisions because she has a better mind for plans. Though he loves her, he doesn't let himself get too carried away, remembering his mission and his need to protect the baby-king. But he also doesn't just listen to every little thing Jean says. Remember up there in that pestle video where Jean says, "It's so easy I can say it" and he doesn't skip a beat before replying, "Well then you fight him." While most of this is likely irritation that he can't remember the rhyme, probably a bit is that he's bitter that she really can't for him, since he would probably sure she could kick his butt. Remember how the Black Fox says "each man serves as best he can"? There's no way Jean could have made the position of captain if she hadn't proven herself able.

Near the end, the two are cornered by Ravenhurst, and he tries to shield Jean with his body. She does a little of the damsel-clench thing, but it's not like she has a weapon so there's not a lot she could do anyway. But Hawkins is still unarmed and still tries his best. Flipping over Ravenhurst though uses his own natural self, he didn't gain new strength or anything like that (he's been quite physical throughout this whole film, and you can guess he was maybe an acrobat or tumbler from the hints of his circus past). Jean is still the one to flip him via the catapult, and I wonder if it's because Hawkins still wouldn't have the stomach for it.

So yeah, I can see how this may have laid a good foundation into "guys I like" just as I was hitting puberty. The men don't have to be the biggest and baddest. Their romantic interests can be stronger, and they aren't threatened. They still want to protect them and be devoted, but not in an annoying or stalker way. And they still have a way to do so, even if it's not in a way that is comparable to others. 

So that's that! Goodness I just kept  going, didn't I? I hope this makes sense, and I'd love to hear any comments or questions, regardless if you've watched the film or not. Being I think one of the better Danny Kaye films though, I hope you may view a copy soon!

Rating: 5 stars

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