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Sunday, January 31, 2010

THE MIKADO (1939)

A plush version of the Gilbert & Sullivan perennial that comes with the imprimatur of the D’Oyly Carte Company & the lux of 3-strip Technicolor. The topsy-turvy story still delights and Gilbert’s sheer craft & impeccably funny lyric writing join perfectly with the tuneful loveliness of Sullivan’s music. Helmer Victor Schertzinger cut his teeth making early Hollywood Talkie musicals and that’s largely what he brings to the glorious job at hand; halfheartedly rearranging song & plot elements while largely holding to proscenium stage shots of the action. It’s a hybrid that delivers only modified rapture, probably better suited for G&S afficionados than for non-initiates. Yet, in preserving what it does of mid-century G&S performance tradition, it’s indispensable. (In the Image DVD edition you can really appreciate the stunningly pretty physical production.*) Of the two great G&S comics on display, Sydney Granville’s Pooh-Bah makes a smoother transition to celluloid than Martyn Green’s over-active Koko*, but with its exceptionally strong cast, it’s the trios & quartets that come off best. And if the soundtrack turns rather harsh on the sopranos, the one American ‘ringer’ in the cast, Hollywood’s Kenny Baker, is a sweet toned improvement on the usual G&S tenor.

*Even those who know what a G&S hound Groucho Marx was may not know that he played Koko in an abridged tv production. They might also be surprised at just how much his capers follow strict G&S tradition. Sadly, when he finally got around to playing the role (under Martyn Green’s direction), he was pushing 70 and no longer up to his Captain Spaulding shenanigans.

NOTE: Joining this traditional presentation in 1939 were two (count 'em, 2) jazzed up versions of the show playing in theaters across the street from each other on B'way, THE HOT MIKADO and THE SWING MIKADO.**That's a lot of Mikados!

**And on a fine new Criterion DVD of this title, you can hear excerpts from them. along with other excellent EXTRAs and a slightly airier picture.

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