The Mikado

The Mikado
Director: Victor Schertzinger
Adaptation: Geoffrey Toye (based on the opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)
Stars: Kenny Baker (Nanki-Poo), Martyn Green (Ko-Ko), Sydney Granville (Pooh-Bah), John Barclay (The Mikado), Gregory Stroud (Pish-Tush), Jean Colin (Yum-Yum), Constance Willis (Katisha), Elizabeth Paynter (Pitti-Sing), Kathleen Naylor (Peep-Bo)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1939
Country: U.K. / U.S.
The Mikado Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The MikadoMade just before the outbreak of World War II, Victor Schertzinger’s film version of The Mikado marked the first cinematic rendition of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s lively operettas. It is not surprising that the newly formed British production company behind the film, which was funded largely with Hollywood money, chose to adapt The Mikado, since it was the most popular and widely renowned of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works. It is also not surprising that the film incorporated many of the players and the general style of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which held exclusive rights to the entirety of Gilbert and Sullivan’s oeuvre in England (and would until the early 1960s) and therefore was able to define what Gilbert and Sullivan looked like on stage. Thus, this screen version of The Mikado, unlike all others, is most interesting as a little slice of history: a snapshot of what the opera looked like with the D’Oyly Carte touch, even as Schertzinger and Geoffrey Toye, the former D’Oyly Carte musical director who wrote the adaptation, take a few careful liberties with the original text--just enough to open it up for the screen and introduce some fundamentally cinematic elements to its treatment, but not so much that it unduly tampered with what Gilbert and Sullivan fans had come to prize as the definitive approach to the material.

The result is a mish-mash of visual and narrative approaches, some of which are successful, and some of which are not. The Mikado is best described as a hit-or-miss affair: Some scenes work with delightful buoyancy, while others feel strained. At times the film stays inordinately true to the D’Oyly Carte stage treatment, while at other times it exploits the possibilities of the big screen and reworks the material, including the addition of a prologue that visualizes what had previously been contained entirely in dialogue and lyrics while also cutting out certain songs and shortening the entire affair by close to an hour, partly by kicking up the tempo (there are points when the image is fading to black before songs have had a chance to end).

We can see the desire to make the material more cinematic in the substantial monetary investment required to shoot the film in three-strip Technicolor, which gives the film outlandish candy hues that makes its setting in a mythical, nonexistent Japan feel all the more fantastical and cartoonish. Unfortunately, while the color is ravishing, the camerawork by Bernard Knowles, who had worked on several of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films, including The 39 Steps (1935) and Secret Agent (1936), feels consistently hemmed in, dwarfed by the outlandish sets and costumes by the Hungarian-born Marcel Vertès (who also worked on Alexander Korda’s production of The Thief of Bagdad and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge). The film’s production design is fundamentally absurd in its willfull exaggeration of East-through-the-eyes-of-the-West medieval Japanese styles, although it does tend to draw attention away from the awkwardness of all the Caucasian actors and actresses in “yellowface,” a then-acceptable practice drawn from a long theatrical tradition.

The film’s inconsistency is evoked most prominently in the performances, which are as varied as the stars on screen. To play the role of Nanki-Poo, the lovestruck prince who is masquerading as a poor ministerial to escape enforced marriage to a much older woman by his father, the ruthless Emperor of Japan (John Barclay), the production tried to please potential American viewers by casting radio crooner Kenny Baker, who brings strong vocal chops to the role, but also a goofy grin and a complete lack of irony. On the other hand, the important roles of Ko-Ko, the chief executioner of the fictional town of Titipu, and Pooh-Bah (Sydney Granville), a corrupt official who comically fills more than a dozen different civic positions all at the same time, the production went with D’Oyly Carte veterans Martyn Green and Sydney Granville, who were sure to placate hardened Gilbert and Sullivan fans who wanted to see on screen exactly what they saw on stage. Green plays up his signature shtick as Ko-Ko, soft-shoeing around the soundstage and enacting various pratfalls to emphasize the fundamental absurdity of his character. Granville, on the other hand, a sizable baritone with a wonderfully expressive face, takes a more subtle approach, and as a result gets some of the biggest laughs in the film (he clearly understands that he is now playing to a camera lens, rather than the back row).

Critics at the time recognized that The Mikado, at least in this iteration, didn’t comfortably make the leap from stage to screen (New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent, although largely generous in his review, still couldn’t help but wonder “whether it ever should be taken away from the footlights, from the realm of unabashed nonsense and make-believe”). Although there is a clear attempt to maintain the idea of exotic fantasy in the film version (note the painterly clouds that float through the foreground in one of the opening shots and the studious lack of disguising the painted backdrops), the film version still feels grounded, partly because of the tension between its semi-theatricality and the inherent transcendence of the camera lens. Because it is based on Gilbert and Sullivan, the film can’t help but be fun, full of memorable songs and whimsical moments of humor, much of which is anchored to a satirically dark, morbid sensibility (I can’t remember ever having seen a musical so obsessed with beheading). So, while not a particularly good film, The Mikado is still a worthy historical artifact, best seen as a pioneering first attempt to translate the immense popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan from one medium to another.

The Mikado Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Mikado is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Video interview with Topsy-Turvy director Mike Leigh
  • Video interviews with Mikado scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr.
  • 1926 silent film promoting the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s stage performance of The Mikado
  • Deleted scene with Ko-Ko’s “I’ve Got a Little List” song
  • Excerpts from 1939 radio broadcasts of the stage productions The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado
  • Insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMarch 29, 2011

    Criterion’s high-def transfer of The Mikado was made from a 35mm interpositive and digitally restored, leaving it extremely clean and almost entirely free of all signs of age and damage. It looks very much like a Technicolor film from the late 1930s, although the colors are not quite as bold and saturated as you might expect (I’m not entirely sure if this is the result of some fading in the transfer elements or if that is the intended look). Nevertheless, the image is quite good for its age; there is a definite softness throughout and some evidence of color separation, although detail remains strong enough to allow the viewer to fully appreciate the gorgeous production design (it is also good enough in some scenes that you can actually spot where the actors’ bald caps end and their foreheads begin). The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from the original optical tracks and digitally restored, is good for its age. Despite some ambient hiss and a bit of crackle that digital restoration couldn’t quite get rid of, one can fully appreciate Sullivan’s charming music and Gilbert’s witty lyrics.
    For a film that has been largely ignored in many realms and completely forgotten in others, Criterion has assembled a strong array of supplements for The Mikado. First up is a new, 18-minute video interview with director Mike Leigh, who grew up listening to Gilbert and Sullivan and did extensive research on them while preparing for Topsy-Turvy (1999). Leigh is quite candid in his assessment of The Mikado and its various faults in being translated for the screen, as are scholars Josephine Lee, a professor of English and Asian Studies at the University of Minnesota, and Ralph MacPhail Jr., a theater director and Mikado scholar, who appear in a half-hour featurette about the history of the operetta and its film adaptation. From the archives Criterion has brought us a three-minute silent promotional film from 1926 for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s newly revised staging of The Mikado, which includes footage of the performance itself, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of Charles Ricketts, who designed the costumes; Ko-Ko’s “I’ve Got a Little List” song, which was filmed, but cut from the final version of the film; and excerpts from 1939 U.S. radio broadcasts of the stage productions The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado.

    Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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