The Inspector-General(1949) remains an irrepressible children's classic and a scrumptious fairytale musical. It's a cinematic adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's ascerbic 1842 satire of Russian feudal society, and is so definitive that it's never been remade. Naturally, mores have moved on (blunt brutality and gallows humour are no longer funny) but its "datedness" is mostly just requisite atavism.
The carnival musicians (who may have invented modern beat-boxing(!)) are a standout, especially their lackadaisical "Hey" guy. Their comical Gypsy music conveys the story's shrewd/wily cynicism and serves to skewer provincialism as Gogol intended.
Transposing the setting to Hungary introduces newer audiences to the story of an illiterate carnival entertainer mistaken for the Emperor's emissary--although referencing Napoleon gets problematic.
The Mayor of Klimenti (Nestor Paiva of Zorro serials fame, d.1966) kick-starts the plot, riding madly into his cousin's town of Brodny. "I must go; even now he (the Inspector-General) may be here, in your midst", he blurts breathlessly amidst gulps of brandy. You almost feel sorry for him--until you see WHY his cape bulges. His "Cousin Biro"(Gene Lockhart) ("biro" in Hungarian means "judge") is in no less trouble--the Inspector-General's incognito technique would trap Brodny's Mayor just the same.
Director Henry Koster's genius is in revealing Brodny as only seemingly less corrupt: its apparent civil order (repressed obedience) is exacted through institutionalised, class-based petty violence. When Biro brutally slaps Kovacs, the Captain of Police(Alan Hale), Koster has this start an unforgettable domino-chain of slaps down all the way to livestock.
This prologue, then, impels the police to fan out patrolling all roads to Brodny and coming upon Yakov Goury's travelling Gypsy show. Georgi(Kaye) is its talented but naïve ("Maybe I can't read or write, but I'm not illiterate!") and pointedly illiterate headliner flogging the snake-oil. Kaye is cute, if silly, twitching ears on cue. Since 1940 his verbal gymnastics were created by his equally talented wife, Associate Producer Sylvia Fine.
One fleece-show act calls for a sickly young man with a prescription for "Rix-zz-jel-knoobtz-f-f-ss-ch-ch-enn-zelminheltzigner......-Twice a day". Kaye's warm delivery conveys perfectly that doctors haven't written legibly.....ever. This "prescription" turns out to be "Yakov's Golden Elixir". A hapless innocent, Georgi's main problem (apart from being illiterate) is that he has a conscience--a right nuisance for a con-man. His ruthless, "dog-eat-dog world" boss Yakov(Walter Slezak, seemingly born into the role) is instead a shifty chameleon who can actually read.
Undermined by Georgi's conscience for the last time, Yakov brutally rejects his frontman after the locals riot. Homeless, hungry (Yakov confiscated the one fish he "caught") and with holes in his boots, Georgi takes to the road. (Note: The rider who overtakes him is rearranged footage--it no longer makes sense as Gregor, mid-flight to Brodny.) Although this adaptation still captures Gogol's wily logic, there are (another) two on screen elements that don't jibe: 1. Georgi's tearing the Emperor's "testimonial" in half to pad his shoe. Despite needing padding, he throws one half away! This "cause" of his later mistaken identity beggars belief.
2. Another is the substitution of Napoleon for the Emperor, when Gogol was famously scathing of Tsar Nicholas' Russian Empire. Presumably the Hungarian relocation and name-changes also account for this bizarre 1949 American oversensitivity to Tsarist Russia!
The point of Gogol's shrewd observation was that "authority" resides in the eyes of (corrupt) beholders; and so the Brodny officials quickly jump to conclusions of "Why not a tramp"?
Georgi's prison stay proves fateful, as he hysterically waves his boot at his captors, dislodging the remaining half of Yakov's forgery. Alan Hale has a wonderful bit goggling at the fake testimonial: ".....continue in this fine work to rid our land of the many evils that plague it.....Napoleon".
Gene Lockhart embodies the Mayor with suitably high-strung, twitching pique. He's at the epicentre of his annoying relatives' idiosynchracies, who fill all the public service jobs; the problem with nepotism being that he can never get away from them! The running gag with the twin postmasters (real twins Sam and Lew Hearn) just compounds the Mayor's hilariously put-upon paternalism.
Meanwhile, our genteel coward's three-day starvation had set up several plot devices: his encounter with the foul soldiers ensures the confusion of the robbery ("Hey! I'm innocent--ask the horse!"); and Georgi's outraged cries about informing the Emperor now sound vaguely plausible. However, the classic food-hoarding scene exists just for laughs: the payoff to his overeating is the gag about what he's offered to counteract his indigestion.
Once the Brodny officials "discover" and attire him (repeatedly) in poor Kovacs' uniform, he's fawned over by everyone--including the Mayor's hilariously vapid wife Maria(Elsa Lanchester, never better). He's a hit singing the Golden-Globe-winning Gypsy_Drinking_Song, and rounding: "....Now dis graop here, I vill make for you, shtok-shtok.....Very pret-yie, I laove you to pieces".
Incongruous Russian accent notwithstanding, his biggest test turns up in the guise of a long-lost, snow-blind, dotty old general. Luckily, no-one except his resurfaced partner Yakov knows he's a fake, and it's Yakov who presses him into service as the Inspector-General (to blackmail the corrupt officials). Suddenly Georgi must discover how to really act the part. Afraid that "a tear in the eye is worth two in the bush", he ponders "Whose head will they jerk, whose block will they knock off?" He even tries to "resign" in a touching letter to Yakov, but he's so popular, having captured Brodny's hopes for justice, that the officials get desperate to be rid of him--by any means necessary. One memorable scene has even Kovacs resorting to bribery, squirming in a roomful of secreted officials: "You see, my wife isn't a contended woman.....oh, I love my family but I'd give my six kids to get rid of my wife"! The clichéd church-organ subplot remains underdeveloped, becoming annoying, and telegraphing that, well, we've seen the best already. From then it's just a rush to a fairytale ending.
Merely second-best of Danny Kaye movies; see The Court Jester(1956).