Genre: Adventure and Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.
Release Date: January 27th, 1956 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Melvin Frank, Norman Panama Actors: Danny Kaye, Glynis Johns, Basil Rathbone, Angela Lansbury, Cecil Parker, Mildred Natwick, Robert Middleton, Michael Pate, John Carradine, Edward Ashley, Alan Napier
ing Roderick the Tyrant (Cecil Parker) seized the throne through a massacre of the entire royal family. But rumor has it that the rightful heir, an infant, has been secreted away into the forest under the care of the renowned outlaw, the Black Fox. With his gang of insurrectionists, trouble brews, causing great dismay to the usurper and his right-hand man Sir Ravenhurst (Basil Rathbone). But perhaps with the help of the wealthy Griswold of the North (Robert Middleton), a brute and a lout who wishes to marry the king’s daughter, Princess Gwendolyn (Angela Lansbury), an alliance can be formed to rid the empire of the masked bandit.
“They’ll never outfox the Fox!” As it so happens, the Black Fox’s identity is occasionally assumed by impersonators like former carnival worker Hubert Hawkins (Danny Kaye), an extraordinarily merry mischief-maker who sings and dances with his band of faithful followers – squeaky little people dressed in coordinating outfits (credited as Hermine’s Midgets). He ends up as the butt of many a joke, tasked primarily with revealing the royal baby’s special posterior birthmark, the purple pimpernel, or creating diversions through embarrassing disguises – alongside Captain Jean (Glynis Johns), a formidable woman whom he’s quite fond of. With Hubert’s proclivity for playing dress-up, a plot is hatched to infiltrate the castle to obtain a key to a hidden passageway – and it’s up to the galavanting entertainer to take the role of a highly reputable court jester.
“Sometimes tenderness and kindness can make a man.” Kaye and Johns lend to a prime comedy partnership, partly serving to emasculate the nincompoop, while also demonstrating the romantic appeal of a funny, artistic, talented caregiver – the polar opposite of the overtly heroic Robin-Hood-like raider whom Hawkins wishes to emulate. Fortunately for him, his lighthearted disposition works like a charm, a seduction tool just as effective as broad-shouldered machismo.
Although the film is chiefly a vehicle for Kaye’s brand of farcical musical, full of linguistic gags, tongue-twisting wordplay (favoring alliteration), and airy crooning, it’s difficult to dismiss the opportunities for swashbuckling adventure, particularly with Rathbone in the cast (it also doesn’t hurt that there’s both a princess and a fair maid [adorned in ever more vibrant dresses] for a consternating love triangle). An abundance of villains allows for a certain level of suspense as well (allusions to torture and rape also arise), despite the regular interludes for clumsy, physical hijinks and slapstick. “Take that horse and put it back under that idiot!”
Kaye’s comic timing proves to be at its very best here, rotating identities through an outrageous hypnosis routine, juggling covert missions that seem impossible to sort out, and accidentally accomplishing assassinative feats (“The man is pure genius!”). In a fitting fashion, all of the supporting roles remain serious with precise consistency, employing the rules of chivalry to absurd heights, allowing Kaye to remain the lone source of over-the-top comedy relief. And his performance as a royal clown in colorful costumes – and then a fumbling knight challenged to mortal combat – is brilliantly orchestrated (his rendition of central song “The Maladjusted Jester” by Sylvia Fine is a notable highlight). The film runs a little long, but it’s thoroughly laugh-inducing (in more than one scene, Lansbury and Johns struggle to stifle chuckles, which is sure to infect viewers), culminating with one of the most hilarious of Kaye’s verbal skits (the mortal choice between the vessel with the pestle and the chalice from the palace) paired with the sensational silliness of a magnetized suit of armor – as well as a rather elaborate castle showdown and an anticipated fencing duel.
– Mike Massie