Monthly Archives: January 2018


The Court Jester

The Court Jester
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: USA, 1956
Directors: Norman Panama and Melvin Frank
Source: Paramount DVD

There were swashbuckler parodies before this film, and others followed later, but The Court Jester is the one and only crown jewel, the chalice from the palace, the brew that is true.

The film was produced, written, and directed by the team of Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, Hollywood journeymen who’d first made their mark with Hope and Crosby comedies in the forties. By the mid-fifties they’d been working together for years, and knew exactly what they were doing. Star Danny Kaye had made an impression with 1947’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but followed that with a series of mediocre comedies that he felt didn’t show off his real strengths. Panama and Frank agreed, and formed a production company with Kaye to create for him a vehicle worthy of his array of talents.

The big studios had been churning out loud and hokey knights-in-shining-armor movies since about 1950, most of them bloated groaners ripe for parody. Panama, Frank, and Kaye decided some medieval mockery was in order, especially of the many knight-in-training films, but then had the inspired idea of borrowing most of their tropes from an actual good movie, the beloved 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn. As icing on the cake they even hired Flynn’s antagonist, Basil Rathbone, to play their leading villain.

And then they wrote a script that is a work of goddamn genius, an action musical that never lets up except to pause for the next comic song, with stock characters all spouting perfect parodies of Hollywood medieval bombast, interspersed with tongue-twisting vaudeville fast-talk routines and punctuated by hilarious physical comedy, all driving an intricate plot that has seventeen moving parts that somehow all interweave and mesh perfectly.

And at the center of this controlled chaos, the focus and fulcrum of almost every scene, is Danny Kaye’s Giacomo the Jester, mugging, swaggering, cowering, singing, japing, pratfalling, and blustering in the performance of a lifetime, somehow simultaneously evoking Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Charlie Chaplin, and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. (Whew!)

Moreover, as if Kaye and Rathbone aren’t enough, we also get the spirited and gorgeous (and slyly funny) Glynis Johns as Kaye’s romantic and comedic foil, a glowing Angela Lansbury as a spoiled and self-centered princess, and the under-rated Mildred Natwick nailing the whammy as the princess’s sorcerous servant. Plus there’s a Robin Hood-style masked outlaw, a secret passage, a baby in a basket, a troupe of midget acrobats, and a vessel with a pestle. If you haven’t seen it, you must. Get it? (Got it!) Good.



By |2018-01-20T20:53:21-05:00January 20, 2018|Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on The Court Jester

The Conqueror

The Conqueror
Rating: *
Origin: USA, 1956
Director: Dick Powell
Source: Universal DVD

This is the legendarily-awful Howard Hughes-produced turkey in which Big John Wayne is incredibly miscast as Big Genghis Khan. However, miscast though he was, Wayne got the part because he wanted it, and you can see why: the role fulfills the male barbarian fantasy in which manly men kneel to you because you’re the toughest, the loudest, and most brutal, and desirable women love you even though you beat and sexually assault them because they just can’t help themselves. Also, Mongol mustaches.

Nothing in this noisy shambles of a movie makes a lick of sense, it’s just nonstop riding and raiding and abductions and surprise attacks, which always work because everyone on every side is a total dope who will fall for anything. Wayne’s “blood-brother” Jemuga (Pedro Armendariz), supposedly a brilliant tactician, gets captured no less than three times by his enemies, which are everybody. The Mongols hate the Merkits, the Merkits hate the Tartars, the Tartars hate the Mongols, and everybody hates the Han Chinese. (Accurate.) There are plots and counterplots, and everybody goes blundering about the desert at a full gallop while waving their swords.

But what you want to know is, is this travesty just bad-bad, or is it hilariously funny-bad? Given John Wayne’s bombastic delivery of his ever-cringeworthy dialogue, it definitely skews toward the latter. Hearing Wayne say stuff like, “Dance, Tartar woman—dance for Temujin!” or (to Agnes Moorehead) “You didn’t suckle me to be slain by Tartars, my mother!”—I mean, it’s just wonderful, and there’s so much of it, because he never shuts up. “She’s a woman, very much a woman. Could her perfidy be less than that of other women?” You can’t ask for better entertainment than that.

Except for one lone Asian actor, cast as a treacherous Chinese shaman, every speaking role is filled by a Hollywood Caucasian, most of whom are unable to imitate Wayne’s enthusiasm for their lines, mostly looking vaguely embarrassed (except for Robert Conrad and Lee van Cleef, who are shameless, as you would expect). Poor Susan Hayward as “the Tartar woman,” one of the foremost leading ladies of her day, just pouts angrily in every scene, except when she has to pretend helpless passion for Wayne. Alas, the film was entirely shot just downwind of a 1950s atomic testing range, and by the 1970s the director and nearly all the leads had died of cancer, which also afflicted the rest of the cast and crew at three times the normal statistical rate. A sad coda for what is otherwise a sort of trash masterpiece, but to quote the Conqueror himself, “What venture is without hazard?”

By |2018-01-20T20:51:40-05:00January 20, 2018|Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on The Conqueror

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (Sole Season)

The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (Sole Season)
Rating: ** (first half) / *** (second half)
Origin: UK, 1956
Director: Ralph Smart, et al.
Source: Amazon streaming video

With the first season of The Adventures of Robin Hood a runaway success on both sides of the pond, the British ITV network called for a companion series, and Sapphire Films was happy to comply. Lancelot was made at the same studios as Robin Hood, employing the same writers and directors, and sharing actors, costumes, and sets. But despite this, the new series seemed to lack the spark of Robin Hood, and got off to a slow start. Star William Russell wasn’t as sharp or versatile as Richard Greene, and the initial episodes are flat, clichéd, and seem aimed at a juvenile Hopalong Cassidy level.

The stories are reasonably well grounded in the Arthurian legends, though without using the actual tales, and with 100% less adultery. Oh, Lancelot and Guinevere make eyes at each other for the first few episodes, but then they dial it down and the knight takes up flirting with whoever is the lady guest star of the week. Merlin, as in Twain’s Connecticut Yankee, is a fraud and a charlatan, but here he’s a wise advisor who uses chemistry and optics to appear to cast spells. Lancelot, however, sees through his tricks, though he doesn’t reveal them, and takes advantage of his cleverness. Unfortunately, the limited budget means a smallish cast, which makes battles and sieges seem faintly ridiculous when conducted with five combatants per side. And though there are at least two sword fights in every episode, the swordplay is rubbish.

However, halfway through the first season somebody seems to have noticed that the series was flagging and decided to do something about it, because after episode 13 the scripts show a marked improvement. Russell doesn’t get any better, but the stories suddenly come alive, the situations are more complex, and the characters show some depth. Furthermore, starting with ep 16, the series is shot in full color, a first for a British TV show. Alas, it must have been too little, too late to save the series, because it wasn’t renewed for a second season.

But that does leave us with a good eight or ten episodes that are worth seeking out. Start with ep 10, “Roman Wall,” an early outlier in which Lancelot finds a lost and forgotten Roman outpost. The first of the better later episodes is 14, “Shepherds’ War,” which is clearly inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Episodes 23 and 27, “Lady Lilith” and “The Missing Princess,” address the situation of women in medieval (and, by extension, 1950s) Britain, going about as far toward advocating equality of the sexes as could be done on fifties TV. But the best episode is 29, “The Thieves,” in which Arthur and Lancelot, for a wager, are disguised as branded thieves, and learn for themselves how the lowest of the underclass are treated by society. (Did I mention that this series is written by the same blacklisted left-leaning American scripters as Robin Hood?)

By |2018-01-20T20:49:23-05:00January 20, 2018|Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (Sole Season)

The Adventures of Robin Hood: Season One

The Adventures of Robin Hood: Season One
Rating: ****
Origin: UK, 1955
Director: Ralph Smart, et al.
Source: Mill Creek DVD

Scene from Robin Hood Season 1

This series, which premiered in 1955 in both the USA and UK, heralded a brief vogue for swashbuckling TV shows, most of them produced in Britain—but of them this is the only one that mattered, because it was smart and dependably entertaining, found a devoted audience, ran for four seasons in the fifties, and then for decades in syndication. (Its only significant rival was Disney’s Zorro.) Though shot in the UK with a British cast and crew, its producers were Americans whose politics leaned left, and most of its scripters were American screenwriters such as Howard Koch and Waldo Salt who’d been blacklisted in the U.S. They gave the stories an anti-authoritarian edge that accorded well with Robin Hood’s outlaw legend.

Much of the series’ success rested on the matinee-idol charisma of star Richard Greene, who invested the role of Robin with a charm and wry wit unmatched since Errol Flynn. With a foil in the equally charming Bernadette O’Farrell as Lady Marian Fitzwalter, and a determined and intelligent adversary in Alan Wheatley as the Sheriff of Nottingham, each episode’s brief (25 minute) morality play delivered solid entertainment week after week, for 143 episodes over the life of the series.

The first season (39 episodes) established the situation: Saxon noble Robin of Locksley, loyal to King Richard, returns to England during the corrupt reign of Prince John, and is outlawed. In resistance, Robin leads a band of Merrie Men from Sherwood Forest, fighting oppression with the aid of romantic interest Lady Marian and advisor Friar Tuck, both of whom are somewhat protected by their positions in society. This becomes the standard pop culture version of Robin Hood for a good twenty years, until the first of the revisionist Robin Hoods, Robin and Marian, in 1975.

The opening episodes that set the stage are among the best. In “The Coming of Robin Hood,” written by Ring Lardner, Jr., Locksley, “back from the Holy Wars,” finds that a Norman, Roger de Lille (a young Leo McKern) has usurped his domain; when Robin tries to reclaim them, an attempt to assassinate him kills de Lille instead, but Robin gets the blame and is outlawed. In “The Moneylender,” Robin joins a band of outlaws in Sherwood, converts them to robbing from the rich to give to the poor, and inherits their leadership when their chief, Will Scathlock, dies in an ambush that Robin had warned them was likely. “Dead or Alive” introduces Little John (Archie Duncan), with the traditional quarterstaff fight on the log bridge, while “Friar Tuck,” of course, brings that mettlesome priest (well played by Alexander Gauge) into the band—and thereafter the outlaws have two schemers in their number. Finally, episode five, “Maid Marian,” introduces Robin’s lady-love in her first full appearance, already adopting male guise and outshooting most of the outlaws.

Unlike most British shows of the period, Robin Hood wasn’t shot all on soundstages, with some exteriors set in the English greenwood in nearly every episode. The scripts are mostly sharp, with an edge lacking in most conformist 1950s teleplays, though most of the overtly comic episodes haven’t aged very well. The swordplay choreography is largely quite good, and archery is often central to the plot, which is gratifying—with the outlaws actually stopping to string their bows before going into action! And for a fifties TV show Lady Marian is quite assertive, capable with a bow, and shown to keep a French maître d’armes who trains her in handling a sword. Later episodes well worth your time include number 18, “The Jongleur;” 22, “The Sheriff’s Boots;” 36, “The Thorkil Ghost;” and what is essentially the season closer, episode 38, “Richard the Lion-Heart.” Note that DVD collections tend to jumble the episode order, which actually matters with this show, considering the way characters are introduced and developed; look online for a reference so you’re sure to watch them in proper succession.

By |2018-01-20T20:47:07-05:00January 20, 2018|Cinema of Swords|Comments Off on The Adventures of Robin Hood: Season One
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