In The Court Jester, Danny Kaye’s life depends on getting the words right
More Scenic Routes
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- The cats, not the cast, draw viewers’ eyes in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante
- What Quiz Show proves about film directing and Argo’s Best Director snub
- The mastery of Brick’s opening (annotated by writer-director Rian Johnson)
In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
There are way more than two types of comedy, but here’s a potentially useful binary distinction anyway. On one hand, you have incredibly intricate, gradually escalating routines—the canonical example would be Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First,” which starts out simple and then keeps adding new permutations. (Another classic of the type: Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic.”) On the other, you have the brute-force approach, in which you commit to a single idea and make it funnier and funnier by dint of sheer repetition. In my head, I call this style of comedy “Yoiks! And away,” after a bit from Robin Hood Daffy in which our hero swings down to rob a passing nobleman and proceeds to smack into tree after tree after tree, his battle cry slightly more dazed after each impact. It’s the same gag over and over, but that’s precisely what makes it hilarious. (Parenthetical Python example: Holy Grail’s Black Knight.)
As I said, that’s fairly simplistic—there are certainly examples that straddle the line, and probably others that fit neither ad hoc definition quite well. What brought it to mind is a case that superficially resembles one but actually adheres more to the other: the famous mnemonic-rhyme sequence in The Court Jester, Danny Kaye’s most beloved (and arguably his best) star vehicle. As ever, Kaye plays a milquetoast who’s forced to rise to the occasion—here, he’s a minstrel serving the Black Fox, a Robin Hood-style champion of the people, who poses as the King’s new jester and winds up forced into a jousting duel with the hulking Sir Griswold (Robert Middleton). There’s a bunch of castle intrigue involved that’s not terribly important—all you need to know for the purposes of this clip is that the ingénue’s maid, Griselda (Mildred Natwick), is on Kaye’s side and has arranged to poison Griswold before the joust can take place. Now all she needs to do is make sure that Kaye knows from which of the two cups he’s supposed to drink.
Prior to deciding to write about this scene, I hadn’t seen it in many years, and my memory was that it’s quite verbally complex—something that would require extensive memorization by the actors. In fact, all that was required was for Kaye and Middleton to get the mnemonic slightly wrong in any way whatsoever, as the comedy derives not specifically from how the words are mangled, but from their intense concentration and nonstop mumbling. Most of Kaye’s mistakes are fundamentally irrelevant—so long as he knows that the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle, it doesn’t matter a whit if he says “the true that is brew.” But the more strenuously he struggles to get it word-perfect, as if preparing for an oral-exam question, the more his failures underscore how pointlessly long and convoluted Natwick’s instructions are. The two original cups look nothing alike; all she needed to say was “drink from the transparent one.” Instead, we get two men marching toward a potentially violent death while inadvertently coining such nonsense phrases as “the chazzle is in the poisly with the flellis in the flaggis.”
In an attempt to confuse matters further, writer-directors Melvin Frank and Norman Panama switch the location of the poison halfway through the routine. This doesn’t actually make a whole lot of sense, as described—the poison was in the cup that didn’t break, so unless the court flunky handling them decided for some reason that he’d best start over from scratch, that’s where it should still be. (Even if he did empty the pestle vessel, why on Earth would Natwick risk killing Kaye by now poisoning the previously safe cup? I guess you can concoct a scenario in which she only had access to that one, but clearly nobody thought about this too hard.) Nonetheless, from the castle’s apparently endless collection of rhyming beverage containers arrives the flagon with the dragon, and the intention isn’t to increase the suspense about whether Kaye will choose correctly—they just wanted to give the actors two more funny words to throw into the mix. If I can trust my math, the twelve syllables involved (ves-sel, pes-tle, cha-lice, pa-lace, fla-gon, dra-gon) allow for 75,582 different combinations that fit the meter, of which we hear but a few.
Then there’s the bolt of lightning that strikes Kaye’s suit of armor, thereby magnetizing it (which I have no doubt is scientifically accurate). The ultimate purpose of this fillip extends beyond the clip I’m presenting; it’s what allows Kaye to win the duel, which does in fact take place. But it also provides an amusing counterpoint to the mnemonic device, repeatedly interrupting both men’s recitations with loud clangs as Middleton’s helmet slams into Kaye and Kaye himself slams into Middleton. Still, while it’s solid physical comedy, the real joke lies in how earnestly they both ignore it, refusing to be distracted from the phrase they still can’t quite get right. Kaye doesn’t even glance down at Middleton’s helmet each time it hits him, either staring straight ahead into space or closing his eyes in concentration. And though Middleton is best remembered as a conventional heavy, in films like The Desperate Hours and The Tarnished Angels, he fully commits to the absurdity of this vengeful behemoth feverishly reciting the dumbest verse ever written. Only when Sir Griswold gets the news about the poison does the scene truly take off; there’s something irresistible about that basso profundo reduced to hapless, hesitant muttering.
Now that I’ve set it all down, that does seem like a fair bit of comic intricacy: the sudden relocation of the poison; the addition of a new receptacle; simple transpositions gradually evolving into nonsense words; Griswold’s aide overhearing the plot and informing his master, creating a duet; the electrified, magnetic suit of armor. Yet I still hear “Yoiks! And away!” (WHOMP.) “Yoiks! And away!” (WHOMP.) Reduced to its essence, the routine is just two guys flailing with a mnemonic device, more or less randomly, over and over again; you could change it to “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November” and it’d play exactly the same. Removing the magnetized armor, or keeping the poison in the vessel with the (inexplicable) pestle—a trestle would make about as much decorative sense, frankly—wouldn’t significantly alter its flow or tenor. Sometimes, all you need is one goofy idea and the will to see it through to its illogical conclusion. Cleverness, while not strictly forbidden, need not necessarily apply.