Directors: Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Writers: Panama and Frank, with songs by Sylvia Fine and Sammy Cahn
Stars: Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker
The Story: In a medieval forest, a clown does what he can to help a Robin Hood type outlaw who is trying to restore the true king. He gets his big chance when they replace the usurper king’s jester and infiltrate the castle. Once inside, he has to court a princess, fight off a mesmerizing lady-in-waiting, and duel a duke.
How it Came to be Underrated: Kaye’s movies were popular at the time, and he’s vaguely well-regarded today, but for some reason he lacks the reputation of the other great clown-geniuses, such as W.C. Fields or the Marx Brothers. This is right up there with the best of their movies. It’s a masterpiece.
Why It’s Great:
- Why don’t all critics embrace Kaye today? Partially because he indulged so much in no-longer-fashionable puns and linguistic gymnastics, especially the fast-talking songs written by his brilliant wife Sylvia Fine. (“Those who try to tangle with my derring-do/ Wind up at the same angle as herring do!”) But Kaye could make a tongue-twister as elegant as a Buster Keaton flip.
- We all know Angela Lansbury and you may recognize Glynis Johns from movies like Mary Poppins where she played the mom. What a treat here to see these two great comediennes before they were consigned to matronly roles, busting out of their bodices, flirting up a storm, and generally kicking ass.
- People cut spoofs a lot of slack, which make the magnificent production values here all the more impressive. This movie works as a comedy and a worthy follow-up to movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood—it even has its own final duel with Basil Rathbone that’s just as thrilling. The impressive castle scenes rival big-budget medieval hits of the time like Ivanhoe and Knights of the Round Table, which seem tacky and stagy today.
- One thing that this movie proves is that comedies are funnier when the hero isn’t completely incompetent (as they tend to be in movies today). Kaye finds himself in a situation over his head, but it’s not one that he is totally unprepared for. We understand his strengths and his weaknesses and we anticipate which situations he might be able to get out of and which ones we know he can’t. A clown who can’t cut it as a revolutionary becomes a jester who has to be a spy. His skills will come in handy, but they will be insufficient until they are pushed to the limit. That’s so much more interesting than a movie about, say, a drunken stable boy who has to pretend to be a jester, and just fakes it all.
- The story becomes very complex but the screenplay is a masterpiece of clarity. We know what every character wants and how their goals conflict, and our brain does somersaults in advance whenever we see that two conflicting agendas are about to collide. We know what will go wrong whenever someone snaps their fingers. We know when Kaye’s gotten the rhyme wrong. (Say it with me now: “The pellet with the poison is in the vessel with the pestle. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!”)
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Another great light-hearted swashbuckler-spoof from the ’50s was Burt Lancaster’s The Crimson Pirate. Kaye’s biggest hit was The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD.
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