Many critics regard The Court Jester as Danny Kaye’s finest film. Written and directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, it’s spoof of what we, as kids, used to call ‘sword pictures,’ adventures that usually starred athletic leading men like Errol Flynn, Richard Greene, Tyrone Power, Cornel Wilde or Louis Hayward. Clever screenwriters understood that action adventures and physical comedies both relied on a pulsing pace. By adding musical numbers and replacing romantic heroes with musical clowns played by Eddie Cantor, Bob Hope, The Ritz Brothers or Danny Kaye, the writers mixed gags with derring-do.
The Court Jester intentionally mimicked the real thing, such as The Adventures of Robin Hood. Villainy was the life’s work of duplicitous Cecil Parker and dastardly Basil Rathbone, while comely damsels Angela Lansbury and Glynis Johns longed for love and rescue.
Being a big comedy star during one’s lifetime is a faulty predictor of how subsequent generations will react to a comedian. Buster Keaton was far less popular in the silent era that Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin or Roscoe Arbuckle. For the past 50 years, however, Keaton has been considered their equal or the superior talent.
It is difficult to say how audiences of the 21st century regard Danny Kaye, because his name is usually absent from the roster in review. Even at his height of movie popularity, Mr. Kaye never ranked among the top 10 box office champions, as did his contemporaries Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney and Martin & Lewis—but, then, The Three Stooges, Lucille Ball or Red Skelton were not major box-office lures. It took television to make superstars of Ball, Skelton and the Stooges.
Danny Kaye came from the same era and showbiz background as did Imogene Coca, Sid Caesar, Jackie Gleason and Larry Storch: playing in nightclubs and small ‘intimate’ stage revues like those produced by Max Liebman before Liebman adapted revue comedy for television with his weekly 1950s weekly Your Show of Shows by bringing Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris to a national audience.
Mr. Kaye, seen for the first time, seems a thoroughly original comedian. Few are.
His instantaneous transformations from a mild young man into a manic song-and-dance clown seem inspired by Harry Ritz, but Danny’s film character is kin to Harold Lloyd’s innocent, seemingly effete boy who rises to a challenge that demanded courage, as does the wily yet not so innocent Eddie Cantor. Interestingly, when Cantor’s well-made star vehicles for Samuel Goldwyn began to slip at the Depression-Era box office, Goldwyn switched to Danny Kaye. To make Mr. Kaye look more like a Gentile, Goldwyn persuaded him to change his hair color from brown to strawberry blonde. Kaye drew the line, however, at getting his nose bobbed.
Danny was among the more professionally fortunate of comedians: his wife and partner, Sylvia Fine, was a master lyricist. She wrote the many rapid-fire alliterative tongue-twisters that were Danny’s trick-in-trade. One of the more famous of them is “The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon; the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true” That and the stanzas that follow comes from The Court Jester.
As Danny Kaye matured, his outré style of comedy with its mercurial outbursts of patter songs mellowed into a more whimsical manner, and he successfully ventured into dramatic films, starred in a hit television hour for a few years, and scored on Broadway as Noah in the musical Two by Two.
A restless, moody man off stage, Danny Kaye seemed never to grow old nor stop working until his death at 76. In addition to his theatrical honors, he became a superior chef and won renown for earning his wings as a licensed pilot of airships from Piper Cubs to jets. But his chief distinction was as a humanitarian. Over the years, he volunteered for the USO—often going to the front lines (as did Martha Raye and Joe E. Brown) to entertain troops; he raised $10 million for musicians’ pension funds; and served as UNICEF’s Good Will Ambassador for 30 years.