Friday, February 10, 2017

Why The Court Jester Gave Ulcers to Paramount Execs

Big crowd scenes that got out of hand contributed to massive cost over-runs on The Court Jester.
What would turn out to be Danny Kaye’s greatest motion picture triumph started out as his biggest bomb.

The Court Jester (1956) was supposed to cost comfortably less than $2 million. Its final price tag hit $4 million and the picture, in its initial run, made just half of that.

So where did all the extra money go?

The biggest cost overruns came from the picture going dramatically over-schedule. It was originally budgeted to be filmed in 48 days, plus 12 rehearsal days and 10 days of second unit shooting. It ended up taking 76 days for principal photography, 18 to rehearse, and 18 for second unit shooting. The biggest—but far from the only—problems were underestimating just how difficult it would be to pull off the tournament and especially the elaborate “midget battle” finale. In fact, an entirely new, larger contraption had to be built mid-way through shooting to launch the midgets when the originally device wouldn’t work.

Among the other cost over-runs:

• The midget number cost an extra $75,000 to shoot, the “basket number” an additional $40,000.

• Photographer Ray Rennahan had to be replaced at the last minute by Ray June, costing an extra $8,000.

• The main title had to be remade several times, increasing its cost by $30,000.

• 21 scheduled filming days were lost: $408,000. In fact, production went so long that other movies, including The Ten Commandments, needed its equipment and soundstages, and sets had to be constantly broken down (an extra $7,100), stored and rebuilt (another $28,100) over and over again.

• They also lost staff as production dragged. William Watson was added late in the game as second unit director. An extra $7,200.

• Robert Alton was called in to replace James Starbuck as dance director (though Starbuck retained choreographer credit). Up-charge: $18,000.

• An extra day of retakes: $14,000.

• Increases in lighting expenses: another $95,000.

• More stuntmen, $10,000.

• More extras, $15,000.

• Costumes for all of them, $22,000.

• More wigs, $9,000.

• Additional insurance, $8,100.

• Underestimate of split screen expenses: $8,000.

Not all of the cost over-runs were surprises. In fact, just before filming began, the directors, Norman Panama and Mel Frank, could tell they were going to blow past their budget by hundreds of thousands and they started lopping out entire scenes and songs, including an elaborate opening planned for Danny’s character to perform at a circus with the midgets. If the directors would have filmed the version they’d originally intended, I have no doubt the film would have cost closer to $5 million.

For more details on all the ups and downs of creating the The Court Jester—and Danny Kaye’s other classic movies—check out Danny Kaye: King of Jesters!

(And my apologies for not providing a story for these last many months, due to being overwhelmed by several other projects. Hopefully, things will start picking up again around here!)