The royal family of old England has been wiped out. Roderick recently usurped the throne as king and now only an infant boy survives from the true line. The Black Fox, and his band of outlaws, have sworn to protect the true king.But fate conspires to put the child in greater danger than ever before. When two of the outlaws, Hubert Hawkins and Maid Jean, try to take the child to safety, they wind up within the walls of the usurper's castle. Now they must rely on their wits to keep the child from being found.If this were a drama, the odds would be against them. But this is Played for Laughs.This 1955 Paramount film, written and directed by Norman Panama and Melvin Frank, and starring Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker, Mildred Natwick, and John Carradine, has been a ComedyCult Classic on TV for years, mercilessly mocking the conventions of medievalSwashbuckler films of the 1930s through the 1950s. A lot of it is thanks to the talent of Danny Kaye, who is about as unlikely an adventure hero as you could get, and the film makes sure to milk every drop of that.It flopped when it came out, but was later a hit on TV. Now it's on the American Film Institute's list of "100 Years... 100 Laughs," and preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Tropes from this film include:
Action Girl: Maid Jean, especially for the standards of the time.
Be Careful What You Wish For: Hubert Hawkins desperately craves action and adventure. He gets it and immediately finds he's totally unsuited for it, as everybody but he had already figured out.
Birthmark of Destiny: The Rightful Heir (still an infant) has a birthmark on his butt. There are a couple of scenes of Hawkins holding the infant in his arms, lowering the swaddling clothes just far enough to reveal the birthmark.
Bumbling Dad: Kind of, in that Hawkins is actually a more than competent foster father to the young king (in fact, he's the most competent parental type in the whole movie), but he's bumbling at pretty much everything else.
Butt Monkey: Alas for Fergus the Hostler. Bravely working for the Black Fox, he gets into the castle but never gets a high enough job to get access to the king's chambers. Nobody ever listens to him; if either Hawkins or Jean had paid him the slightest bit of attention, the movie would be over in five minutes. And at the end, it is strongly implied that he gets tortured to death by Ravenhurst's men.
Captain Ersatz: The Black Fox is a swashbuckling thief and outlaw leading a group in resistance against an illegitimate king from a headquarters hidden in a forest. If he were the main character of this movie, he'd probably have outright been Robin Hood explicitly.
Chekhov's Army: Hawkins's dwarf friends, seen during the "Outfox The Fox" number at the start of the film.
Dwarf: Well, if you ever need us, call us. Black Fox: Thank you. I shall.
Combat Pragmatist: Hawkins isn't above biting and pinching in order to gain advantage in a swordfight.
Courtly Love: Parodied, not only with Hawkins only doing it because he has been Brainwashed, but by Danny Kaye making silly poses to spoof the almost implausible complexity of many romantic heroes.
Credits Gag: Among other things, Basil Rathbone's name comes up in scary font any time Danny Kaye's song mentions evil or villainy. No points for guessing which side his character's on, although, since he's Basil Rathbone, that was never really in question.
Damsel out of Distress: Maid Jean is caught and taken to the castle, and it almost makes her more dangerous to the antagonists than if she had gotten away.
Deadly Decadent Court: Ravenhurst and his associates scheme murder to retain their influence with Roderick.
Does Not Like Shoes: Jean might be an example of this but it's hard to tell if she is or the bare feet are just part of her costume in the disguise and better than wearing heels in the final scene. She does wear boots as part of her regular "outlaw uniform."
Excuse Me While I Multi Task: Spoofed in the climactic battle when Hawkins (under hypnosis) nonchalantly fights off Ravenhurst's attack while pouring a cup of wine to toast Ravenhurst's health! Ravenhurst is infuriated.
Flynning: Parodied in the climax. It should be noted that Danny Kaye was such a quick study at fencing (and incredibly skilled at mimicking others in general) that, in any shot where you don't see Basil Rathbone's face, Kaye is actually fighting a fencing master who was hired to be Rathbone's double. Rathbone had been an expert fencer since childhood, but he was twenty years Kaye's senior and couldn't keep up in a couple of the scenes. The fencing master himself, Ralph Faulkner, is said to have told Kaye to take it easy on him!
Hollywood History: But of the Artistic License kind. Of course there has never been any Roderick on the throne of England, legitimately or illegitimately, and that any resemblance in this film to the real Middle Ages is a coincidence not intended. Lampshaded in the opening song:
Hypno Fool: It seems to give Hawkins skills he never had, such as seduction and sword fighting.
Implausible Fencing Powers: Hawkins slashes a set of candles, apparently to no effect, and Ravenhurst laughs at him. Then he blows on the candles, and they fall apart. This is another Actor Allusion, as well, as Tyrone Power had pulled a similar, if less exaggerated, bit of swordplay on Basil Rathbone's Captain Esteban in 1940's The Mark of Zorro.
Intimate Marks: The Rightful Heir (still an infant) has a Birthmark of Destiny on his butt. In the ending, the titular Jester, with the infant in his arms, lowers the swaddling clothes just far enough to reveal the birthmark, to a long line of nobles.
The Jester: Hawkins is forced to impersonate one to infiltrate the castle, hence the film's title.
"Jester to the King. Jester to the King. To the King?!"
"Light up the oil, this man must boil, this man named Giaco-MO?! Oh! No!"
"Yea, verily, yea! Yea?"
Hawkins during the joust after his helmet is knocked off.
Jean also gets one. Before "The Maladjusted Jester", Hawkins subtly starts singing the tune of the lullaby he had earlier used to lure the infant king to sleep. While holding the basket containing the baby, right in front of Roderick! The Oh, Crap comes when Jean realises this. Heck, she even mouths "Baby" as it happens.
Parodied Trope: Swashbuckling, courtly love, knighting, dueling, outlaws, rebellion, and just so many other tropes of these films.
Pimped Out Cape: Roderick wears an ermine cape most of the time, perhaps compensating for how he got on the throne. His daughter wears one for just one scene.
Pun: Kaye's song "The Maladjusted Jester" exists to lead up to "A jester unemployed/Is nobody's fool!"
Punch! Punch! Punch! Uh Oh...: Not quite, but similar as Hawkins slaps Griswold in the face with a gauntlet repeatedly and Griswold doesn't even seem to notice that it's happening, but when Griswold slaps Hawkins in the face it nearly knocks him over.
Recitation Handclasp: One of several postures taken (he can't seem to stand still) while Danny Kaye is singing.
Tomboy: Maid Jean. Her father taught her how to fight. She suspects he wanted a boy.
Tongue Twister: "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle...." Hawkins of course becomes completely Tongue Tied.
Translation: Yes: Jean pretends to be deaf and mute, Hawkins pretends to be her grandfather. When asked by a soldier if she has seen a group in the forest, she speaks at length in sign language. Hawkins translates this as "No."