I find that old movies tend to be either very good or very bad on historical accuracy. Few are somewhere in between, but this is one of them. The Court Jester is a musical comedy starring the marvelous Danny Kaye as Hubert Hawkins, a performer who has joined with a Robin Hood-esque outlaw called the Black Fox. When the royal family is destroyed and the throne is stolen, these outlaws must try to overthrow him and restore the rightful infant ruler to the throne. Hawkins disguises himself as Giacomo the Jester to infiltrate the castle, and chaos ensues.
This movie has many problems related to historical accuracy. The king is something like an absolute ruler, the knighting ceremony is more of a checklist of stereotypical deeds, and the movie shows jousting knights being lifted onto their horses by cranes. When Sir Griswold is offended by Hawkins/Giacomo, he demands to settle the matter with a trial by ordeal, so Hawkins/Giacomo is knighted for the sole purpose of allowing him to fight Griswold. Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury) is being forced into a political marriage when she longs to marry for love. Jean, the Black Fox’s lieutenant, is captured when the king orders the area’s wenches rounded up so that he can take his pick. She escapes only because one of the men ordered to inspect them is her inside contact.
However, except in costume, the movie does well in portraying the role of a jester. Though the term “jester” is not a strict category, Hawkins/Giacomo fulfills two major aspects of such a performer—entertaining songster and slapstick humorist. The Court Jester does a good job of demonstrating how a famed performer could traverse boundaries, geographical and otherwise, that would otherwise be difficult for someone who fits a strict role in the medieval class system. Though the word play is modern, it fulfills the same wit expected from a successful jester. The only scene with questionable accuracy on jester treatment is where Hawkins/Giacomo sits at the monarchs’ feet and is kicked by both the king and princess when he does not immediately sing the responses they want. While this situation is plausible, physical abuse does not seem to be usual fare for a good jester, and it is certainly inconsistent with the expected attitude towards a famous performer such as Giacomo.
I don’t find most of the movie’s problems troubling since The Court Jester is set in a fairy tale, vaguely medieval past, and audiences seldom look to musical comedy for historical information. King Roderick is merely the king of Somewhere Where Most People Have British Accents. Many plot points feature a witch’s magic and mistaken identity, not events tied to history, nor does the movie try to give a historical setting. I’m even willing to forgive the Wench Roundup because the idea is just so ridiculous and is clearly a plot device to get Jean into a pretty dress. The driving force of the storyline is Danny Kaye’s versatility and humor. The songs are cheerful and the word play is memorable:
Hawkins: I’ve got it! I’ve got it! The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true! Right?
Griselda: Right. But there’s been a change: they broke the chalice from the palace!
Hawkins: They broke the chalice from the palace?
Griselda: And replaced it with a flagon.
Hawkins: A flagon?
Griselda: With the figure of a dragon.
Hawkins: Flagon with a dragon.
Hawkins: But did you put the pellet with the poison in the vessel with the pestle?
Griselda: No! The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon! The vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true!
Hawkins: The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true.
Griselda: Just remember that.
Many plot points are unlike anything that would be seen in medieval literature, but are entertaining. Just before Hawkins/Giacomo puts on his armor for the joust, it gets struck by lightning and magnetized. Everything metal in the vicinity sticks to him, including his opponent. Griselda places a spell on Hawkins/Giacomo so that he will think he is either a great lover or a great swordsman when anyone snaps his fingers. You can imagine where that goes.
The Court Jester does surprisingly well on costume accuracy, at least for men. Most of the brightly-colored clothing resembles designs found in medieval art, save that the tunics are all far too short. Hawkins/Giacomo’s costume is sometimes appropriate for a medieval jester, but it is sometimes too shiny and the belled cap is an article of later performers. While the women’s dresses are not put together the way a medieval dress would be, they at least bear a resemblance to some medieval dresses and avoid the major offense of corsets. Modern viewers will appreciate that though Jean is a love interest in the story, she is intelligent and the viewer is meant to believe that she’s a more competent fighter than most men in her group. Giacomo is supposed to have come from the Italian court, so it acknowledges the cultural communication of the Middle Ages. Peasants and religion are both nonentities in this story, so it avoids making mistakes in these areas by not mentioning them at all.
I highly recommend The Court Jester, especially after grading a big stack of papers. It’s lighthearted, fluffy, and charming.