Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Mikado (General Film Distributors, 1939)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Mikado, an odd 1939 British production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta (the ninth of their 13 collaborations and one of the Big Three along with H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance) that was shot in full-out three-strip Technicolor (when Charles saw Natalie Kalmus’s credit as Technicolor consultant he wondered if this were one of the movies made while the Hollywood studios had clubbed together and sent her to the U.K. to get her out of their hair!) and imported an American star (of sorts), Kenny Baker, to play the juvenile lead, Nanki-Poo. (The silliness of his name indicates how risible W. S. Gilbert’s libretto is as any even remotely believable depiction of Japan, but of course that wasn’t the point.) Nanki-Poo is the son, and heir to the throne, of the Mikado (John Barclay), who decreed that Nanki-Poo must marry Katisha (Constance Willis, who though her face isn’t painted green is otherwise made up to look surprisingly like Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch of the West in another classic 1939 color fantasy, The Wizard of Oz), a great lady of the Japanese court who’s three times Nanki-Poo’s age and is played, as Anna Russell would have put it, by “the great big contralto with a voice like a foghorn.” Rather than submit to his dad’s imperial edict that he marry this “excessively unattractive” (Anna Russell again!) person, Nanki-Poo runs away and takes a job as second trombonist in a marching band, though he also doubles on some sort of Japanese stringed instrument (which we’re never allowed to hear him actually play) and declare himself “a wandering minstrel, I.” While he’s doing this he comes to the town of Titipu and falls in love with a local girl, Yum-Yum (Jean Colin) — only Yum-Yum is the ward of Ko-Ko (Martyn Green), who’s had a checkered recent career; he started out as a tailor and was arrested and condemned to death for flirting, but a series of reversals of fortune (which Gilbert never explains, at least in this version of the operetta as cut down by Geoffrey Toye, who was also the screenwriter and musical director) resulted in his being appointed Lord High Executioner of Titipu. The only problem is his one-year appointment in that job is about to run out, and his own head will be forfeit if he hasn’t executed anybody in that time. Of course Ko-Ko is in love with Yum-Yum himself, and when Nanki-Poo learns this he’s beside himself and determines to commit suicide. Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah (Sydney Granville, who according to an imdb.com reviewer had been doing this long enough to have performed the role under the direction of W. S. Gilbert himself), who seems to hold all the other offices in Titipu, hatch a plot: if Nanki-Poo is so determined to die, why can’t he just let them execute him? What’s more, they throw in a sweetener: he’ll be allowed to marry Yum-Yum and live with her for a month, after which he will be executed, Yum-Yum will be widowed and Ko-Ko will be free to marry her. Only Pooh-Bah discovers another crazy law decreed by the Mikado — that if a husband dies his widow will be buried alive — this has never been put into effect before but Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah and Yum-Yum are scared it will be this time.

Needless to say, this plot is really just a line on which to hang Gilbert’s wickedly satirical comments on bureaucracy, silly laws and the death penalty (The Mikado is actually, among other things, a quite effective propaganda piece against capital punishment), and it ends with the decision of Ko-Ko to let Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum get married and run off together if he can report to the Mikado that Nanki-Poo was executed, even though he wasn’t. One of the most delicious parts of the score, in fact, is Ko-Ko’s “The Criminal Cried,” his description of Nanki-Poo’s (fictitious) execution. The Mikado is pleased until he realizes that the “victim” of Ko-Ko’s execution is his son, whereupon he’s very displeased and Ko-Ko has to produce the still-alive Nanki-Poo to save his own neck. He also has to get Katisha (ya remember Katisha?) off Nanki-Poo’s back by courting her himself in what Gilbert seems to have intended as a deliberate parody of the famous scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III in which Richard gets Anne to marry him even though he had her previous husband — Edward, Prince of Lancaster, Henry VI’s son — killed. It ends happily, of course, with Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum paired off, as are Ko-Ko and Katisha, and Titipu keeping its status as a city (it would have been downgraded to a village had no one been executed in the year Ko-Ko has served as Lord High Executioner). It’s not clear from imdb.com which British company produced this film, but the credits indicate that the distributor was J. Arthur Rank’s General Film, while in the U.S. the rights went to Universal, which had only previously released one all-color film (the 1930 musical King of Jazz with Paul Whiteman, shot in two-strip Technicolor). Universal released The Mikado in the U.S. three years before the first three-strip film they produced themselves, Arabian Nights. The film is quite charming — a bit too charming, in fact — expertly re-creating the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s performance tradition of The Mikado that no doubt dated back to the 1885 premiere, with the stylized ways the actors moved (one Fanfare reviewer said one of the joys of old Gilbert & Sullivan films was watching how the women manipulated their prop fans), with actors who had either worked in the original productions or been trained by people who did. One major disappointment is that Ko-Ko’s song “I’ve Got a Little List” is missing — apparently it was filmed and a print with it included survived in the D’Oyly Carte archives, but the commonly circulating copies leave it out — but all the other highlights of the score are here even though Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music, as fun as it is, really doesn’t delineate the characters effectively. (This weakness was probably the reason why, despite several attempts — including a version of Ivanhoe — Sullivan was never able to break out of the operetta ghetto and write a serious full-fledged opera that was a success.)

The 1939 film of The Mikado is a quite charming period piece — the director, Victor Schertzinger (who was a songwriter and composer himself), stages the action effectively, though I suspect he could have been more creative if he hadn’t had Geoffrey Toye looking over his shoulder as producer, musical director and screenwriter — and much of the singing is surprisingly good. I’d grown to loathe Kenny Baker for the whiny tenor with which he’d afflicted movies like The Goldwyn Follies (for which he got to sing George Gershwin’s last songs — not one of the mega-talents for whom Gershwin had written, including Jolson, Astaire, Rogers, Lawrence, O.K. Merman et al.) and the Marx Brothers’ At the Circus (for which Harold Arlen’s songs “Two Blind Loves” and “Step Up and Take a Bow” reached a level of awfulness quite matching Baker’s renditions of them — Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg had had to sign a two-film contract with MGM to get to do The Wizard of Oz, and this was the other film). But here he’s quite entertaining; apparently the sprightly late-19th century music of Sir Arthur Sullivan suited him better than the scraps of the Great American Songbook he got hold of in the U.S., and instead of whining he’s winning — if he seems a bit too much the pathetic nerd to be believable as a heart-felt lover, blame W. S. Gilbert for writing the character that way. He’s matched by his Yum-Yum, Jean Colin, whose excellent diction is a real pleasure and quite a contrast with the mush-mouths like Joan Sutherland who were to come later — Sutherland was an excellent singer except for her rotten diction that made it difficult for people (for me, anyway) to understand her even when she was singing in English, both her native language and my own. (I’ll never forget my experience of hearing a 1959 Sadler’s Wells broadcast of Handel’s Rodelinda, sung in English, with Sutherland and Janet Baker — and the difference in vocal clarity between Sutherland’s noisemaking and Baker’s crisp, pure, easily understandable enunciation is obvious and makes a mockery of the people who say, “Well, it’s coloratura music — it can’t be sung intelligibly!”) Also, while none of the (admittedly meager) documentation I’ve seen on this film has hinted at this, I suspect given the way later Gilbert and Sullivan video projects were done — with at least all the most popular of their works being filmed and sometimes attempts at the whole oeuvre — I suspect that there would have been additional Gilbert and Sullivan operetta films from Britain after this one, only that didn’t happen because World War II did.