The Court Jester Comes to Blu-ray

When fishing around for a film to show on a movie night with friends, before Covid-19 rudely interrupted, I recommended The Court Jester. I had it on DVD, but I knew it looked good enough to satisfy non-critical viewers who likely also wouldn't be bothered by its 1950s mono sound. We passed on it that time around, but that old DVD has now taken its last spin. A spanking new Blu-ray of the film has just been released in a video transfer nothing short of stunning.

The movie was originally shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process used (mainly by Paramount) in the 1950s and 60s. It's long-since been dropped as a release format, but was sometimes employed for in-camera special effects created for non-VistaVision productions, particularly in the pre-CGI era. It was used, for example, in the creation of the effects for some of the early Star Wars and Star Trek films when CGI wasn't yet a thing.

The VistaVision process was originally designed to reduce the graininess of color film. The 35mm film was run through the gate horizontally, offering more real estate for each frame than the standard vertical orientation. But practical issues kept it from being widely used in the full production chain from the set to the theater screen. Eventually the process was abandoned (apart from that ongoing use for special effects) when film with a finer grain structure became available. This reduced the primary benefit of VistaVision and, not incidentally, also saved money (running film horizontally through the camera used it up fast).

To produce this new Blu-ray release of The Court Jester the original film elements were scanned at 6K , then downconverted to 2K HD for the Blu-ray release. The original film elements were also three-strip Technicolor—likely another factor in the Blu-ray's spectacular images. The main letdown here is the audio. It's an adequate but unimpressive mono (2.0 but with the same audio on both tracks). Even in 1956, multichannel was widely used in premier productions. The extras here are nothing special either: just a brief retrospective from film critic Leonard Maltin and a trailer.

But the sparkling video here is only the icing on this absolutely classic film. Some of the other Danny Kaye films I've seen were notable mainly for their intermittent gags. Three worth mentioning are the ballet scene near the end of Knock on Wood (perhaps the funniest non-verbal Kaye sequence ever) and a similar (but not quite as hilarious) opera scene in Wonder Man. Then there's The Inspector General, a fun ride overall and probably Kaye's second best film.

But nothing else from this peerless comic comes close to The Court Jester. Full of Kaye's signature brand of nuttiness specializing in rapid-fire patter, it's widely recognized as one of the best movie comedies ever made. Yes, it has its weaknesses. It's a musical which is fine with me, but with the exception of The Maladjusted Jester number, a feast of Kaye's tongue-twisting delivery of the song's brilliant lyrics, the few added songs are harmless but forgettable. Among the added pleasures here, however, are a young Glynnis Johns and (for younger viewers who know her only from TVs Murder She Wrote) Angela Lansbury very early in her career (she's in the blue dress in the above photo).

But it's the comic interludes here that stand out. Kaye's plays Hubert Hawkins, a bumbling member of the Black Fox band of Robin-Hood-like outlaws bent on removing the usurper King Roderick and restoring the rightful king, an infant with the royal Purple Pimpernel birthmark on his tushy.

But all of this is simply a framework for some of Kaye's best work: masquerading as an old man, fake but convincing accents, sneaking into Roderick's castle as the jester Giacomo, wooing the princess, being knighted in a rushed ceremony and then, in possibly the most iconic comic routine in movie history (challenged perhaps only by "Who's on First), "The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle, the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true!" I'll say no more since you might be among the 50% of the population who've never yet experienced this film.

Yes, you can watch this film from a range of streaming sites. But I'm certain that they won't match the picture quality offered here. My only disappointment is that Paramount didn't go the whole way and give us a 4K transfer — a logical step from the 6K scan. But don't let that put you off. A future 4K release is highly unlikely (but I'd buy it again in a heartbeat!). If you've never seen this film, it's an unmissable hoot for everyone from 8 to 80 — or even 5 to 80.

I don't believe that the link below, for streaming the movie, will give you the transfer quality found on the Blu-ray disc referenced here. I haven't sampled it (I don't want to give Amazon Prime any more money than necessary!) but the odds are that it will provide the same adequate but middling quality that's been available since well before this recent Blu-ray release.