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Case Number 26793: Small Claims Court

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The Court Jester / The Five Pennies

The Court Jester
1955 // 101 Minutes // Not Rated
The Five Pennies
1959 // 117 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // January 5th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Jim Thomas knows all too well that an unemployed jester is nobody's fool.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Five Pennies, published June 19th, 2006, is also available.

The Charge

Do you know where the pellet with the poison is?

The Case

The Court Jester
A usurper sits on the English throne, having killed the true king and his family. Against him stands the Black Fox, a mysterious figure who lives in the woods (Any resemblance to a certain rogue in Sherwood are purely intentional). Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty), a circus performer who has recently joined the rebels, is given an important assignment—he must accompany one of the Black Fox's leaders, Jean (Glynis Johns, Mary Poppins) across the country with a most precious cargo—the true heir to the throne, identifiable by a hereditary royal birthmark on the royal posterior. On the way, however, they encounter a jester, the Great Giacomo (John Carradine, Stagecoach), on his way to court. Jean and Hawkins subdue Giacomo so that Hawkins can take Giacomo's place and infiltrate the castle. The plan initially goes well, but they lacked a key piece of information—Giacomo is not only the Jester of Kings, he is also an accomplished assassin—and the false king's right hand man, Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone, Terror by Night) has hired him to eliminate some rivals. Now Hawkins must navigate all manner of obstacles to achieve his goal and win Jean's heart, not the least of which is the king's daughter, Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury, Gaslight), who has fallen for him. Now if he can only remember if the vessel with the pestle or the flagon with the dragon has the pellet with the poison.

The songs were co-written by Sylvia Fine, Kaye's wife. Fine had a perfect understanding of Kaye's vocal strengths, and carefully tailored songs for him in several other movies as well—Including our second feature here. "Life Could Not Better Be," which opens and closes the movie, sets the tone perfectly—a silly little ditty that references the credits as they play, while Kaye, in jester's motley, sings the song while moving around to avoid the credits. It clearly announces, "Hey, we're just having some fun here, so kick back and enjoy the show." Kaye himself is in rare form—this is the movie he's best remembered for, and with good reason. Not only does he have great chemistry with Glynis Johns, but his physical performance is a marvel, particularly once the fingers start snapping. The one weak link is, believe it or not, Angela Lansbury as the false king's daughter Gwendolyn—it's not so much that there's anything wrong with her performance, it's just that the part is so weakly written that just about anyone could have played it. Mildred Natwick, delightful as the mother in Barefoot in the Park, has a blast as Grizelda, Gwendonlyn's servant with a talent for witchcraft, and stands toe-to-toe with Kaye.

Basil Rathbone essentially pays homage to his own performance 17 years earlier in The Adventures of Robin Hood; again, he's the wily advisor to a usurping monarch, and is suitably oily and scheming. Rathbone was an accomplished fencer; however, he was in his 60s when this movie was made, and was slowing down a bit. After just two weeks of fencing practice, Kaye was so fast with a sword that they had to get a double for Rathbone—you'll notice that every time Kaye is pulling off a dazzling array of attacks, parries, and ripostes, Ravenhurst always has his back to the camera. Rathbone was a good sport about it, and often joked about it in interviews.

The Five Pennies
Four years after The Court Jester, Kaye was wanting to demonstrate his range. So he hit upon the true story of one of the more accomplished, yet little-known figures in early jazz, Loring "Red" Nichols. Aspiring cornet player Nichols (Kaye) arrives in New York City from Ogden, Utah, in the 1920s, full of hopes and dreams, and with a chip on his shoulder the size of Utah. He marries beautiful singer Bobbie (Barbara Bel Geddes, Dallas), but struggles to maintain a job because of his inability to conform to the bandleaders' dictates. Finally, the couple form a Dixieland band—The Five Pennies—and hit the road. Hard won success, and a baby girl, Dorothy, follows, but as the band starts to hit it big, Dorothy is stricken with polio, and Red decides to abandon his career to stay home with his family and help with Dorothy's rehab. As you might suspect, Red eventually makes his way back to the stage.

Trivia: Red Nichols performed all of Danny Kaye's cornet solos.

The Five Pennies is somewhat frustrating. The kernel of a sweet, if somewhat maudlin, story is there, and there are several scenes clearly designed to give Kaye a chance to display some range. In addition, there are some solid musical numbers, including the Oscar-nominated "Lullaby in Ragtime," as well as a few by another trumpet player of some renown, one Louis Armstrong. But interspersed throughout the movie are sequences of Kaye doing a lot of his usual schtick, which disrupts both the characterization and the narrative.

This double feature is an on-demand disc from the Warner Archive. If you grade on a curve, the disc is technically pretty good. The colors are vivid and sharp, with some slight softness on long shots, but there are a lot of blips and flecks throughout. The Court Jester was originally shot in VistaVision 1.66:1 then matted to 1.85:1 during the TechniColor printing process (a common technique). Here, the video has been cropped to 1.77:1, which under most circumstances would hardly be noticeable. However, the opening credits have a literal frame around them, making the change obvious. The Dolby Mono track is somewhat thin. While the dialogue is clear and understandable, the instrumental music is tinny with noticeable distortion. It's not enough to seriously diminish the viewing experience, but it's easily noticeable. The Five Pennies is in better shape, which substantially less film damage. There's even a Dolby 5.1 Surround track, but it's best to think of it as a very good stereo mix.

The only bonus features—a rarity for Warner Archive releases in general—are theatrical trailers for each film.

The Court Jester drags at times, particularly in the middle, but the final set pieces—from the knighting ceremony and the pellet with the poison, to the duel with Ravenhurst—are brilliantly conceived and executed, resulting in a fun sendup of the entire swashbuckling genre. This isn't the sort of movie you'd expect to find in the On Demand format. It's a classic—albeit a minor one—and a perfect candidate for a more extensive restoration. The Five Pennies is tacked on as an enjoyable but unremarkable film.

The Verdict

Not Guilty.

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Scales of Justice, The Court Jester

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile, The Court Jester

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (French)
• None
Running Time: 101 Minutes
Release Year: 1955
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Court Jester

• Trailer

Scales of Justice, The Five Pennies

Judgment: 78

Perp Profile, The Five Pennies

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 1959
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, The Five Pennies

• Trailer

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