The Mikado, a 1960 television adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera, is a fascinating artifact, the kind of thing that continues to make DVD such a marvelous format for outré bits of films and tapes which enterprising and creative DVD producers occasionally seize upon.
Originally it was a one-hour episode of The Bell Telephone Hour, a variety series of the type that would soon be exiled from prime-time network schedules and banished to PBS before the decade was out. Iconic D'Oyly Carte Opera Company principal Martyn Green adapted the program (introducing it, too, in a tux and pompously brandishing a monocle), and it features such heavyweights as Robert Rounseville (The Tales of Hoffman), Dennis King (Fra Diavolo), and Helen Traubel (Rogers & Hammerstein's Pipe Dream).
But the rarely seen show is far better remembered because it starred, of all people, Groucho Marx, in the comedic but nonetheless highly unusual role of Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titipu.
Groucho, in fact, was an obsessive Gilbert & Sullivan fan with an impressive record collection. He enjoyed reading the libretto at bedtime and probably sang it in the shower. Groucho's friend Dick Cavett said it was Groucho's only prejudice: if you didn't admire W.S. Gilbert's clever wordplay, Groucho had no use for you.
The DVD, alas, offers no clues as to how Groucho and this project collided, but only one of two explanations seems possible. Either Groucho learned about The Bell Telephone Hour's plans and elbowed his way into the cast or, more likely, some producer or deal-maker heard about Groucho's Gilbert & Sullivan fetish and suggested building a show around this passion.
Whichever the case, the dramatically abbreviated production trims just about everything except Groucho's part, which as a result gets fattened from colorful supporting character to leading role, even above nominal protagonist Nanki-Po (Robert Rounseville).
The Mikado, which aired on April 29, 1960, the last show of the '59-'60 season in fact, was prerecorded in color on (presumably one-inch) videotape, but today survives only as a black & white kinescope. VAI's release does what it can with these less-than-ideal elements, supplementing them with several welcome extra features.
The story is set in the (fictitious) Japanese town of Titipu where wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo (Rounseville), in fact the son of the Mikado (King), has fled to avoid an arranged marriage to grotesque, elderly Katisha (Traubel). Nanki-Poo is himself in love with Yum-Yum (Barbara Meister), the ward of former tailor Ko-Ko (Groucho), newly appointed Lord High Executioner. But local official Pooh-Bah (Stanley Holloway) informs Nanki-Poo than Yum-Yum and Ko-Ko are scheduled to marry the very next day.
Ordered by the Mikado to execute somebody within a month's time, Ko-Ko strikes a bargain with the suicidal Nanki-Po: Ko-Ko allows him to marry Yum-Yum provided he surrender himself for execution one month later.
By all accounts, Groucho had a whale of a time making The Mikado, particularly because a) his performance was supervised by Martyn Green, who famously performed the role in D'Oyly Carte productions as well as the 1939 movie of the same name; and b) doting father Groucho got to sing and dance alongside his beloved youngest child, Melinda, who plays Peep-Bo.
However, even Groucho didn't think much of the end result, though perhaps he was only being hypercritical of his own performance, which is far from great. He was 69 years old at the time, back when anyone over 70 was living on borrowed time, and though his long-running quiz show, You Bet Your Life, was still on the air, except for a few cameos Groucho hadn't tackled any real acting roles since the early '50s (the movies Double Dynamite and A Girl in Every Port), and even those hardly taxed his acting muscles.
He pretty much blows "As Some Day It May Happen (I've Got a Little List)," his sluggish delivery and off-key warbling all but asphyxiating the patter-song's charms, but he's much better later on, even delightful serenading Katisha with "Willow, Tit-Willow" from a tree, as Green had done on stage, and which recalls Groucho's many screen pairings with Margaret Dumont. He doesn't ad-lib but there are little winks from several cast members to the audience, and Groucho has a line about Kansas City that surely isn't original (or is it?). He's without his trademark cigar but does wear glasses and a mustache in addition to the thick Oriental makeup and a topknot wig. (In publicity poses his glasses are big, round ones like Robert Woolsey's but on the show he wears a completely different pair.)
The program serves as a vehicle for Groucho and yet it's not. Groucho respects the material too much to dare play with it beyond Green's supervision; ironically it's others in the cast who camp it up, always a mistake with Gilbert & Sullivan, which plays best when done full-on, fully committed as it were. It's interesting to compare Groucho to Stanley Holloway. Although he trained as an operatic baritone, Holloway hadn't really done anything quite like this, either, but he comes across better than Groucho, blending into the production in ways Groucho never does. Unsurprisingly, three big opera stars come off best, particularly Rounseville.
Video & Audio
The Mikado looks about average for a black and white kinescope of a color videotape production. The loss of color is very unfortunate but not at all ruinous. The program is complete (opening and end titles, apparently previously though lost, are here, and the original Bell Telephone commercials are included as an extra feature). The all-region disc has good audio, considering, but no subtitle options, a shame for those wishing to read along to the lyrics.
Supplements include what's billed as an "audio commentary by Dick Cavett, Melinda Marx Leung, Barbara Meister, and more," but that's misleading. In fact the comments aren't married to the show but presented separately over various stills and video clips. Each was apparently recorded over the telephone (appropriately enough) in May 2012, and are all interesting, though Meister, actress Sharon Randall Erdman (who also had Zeppo Marx as her agent at one point), and Yvonne Chauveau Dollard (widow of Martyn Green) speak only briefly. Also included is about 12 minutes, in color, from a 1963 television production of H.M.S. Pinafore starring Green, Margot Moser, and Mac Morgan.
Though targeting a very particular audience (obsessive Groucho Marx and/or Gilbert & Sullivan fans), this Mikado fascinates even when it isn't very good, an artifact many have wondered about for decades, and for that audience it comes Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.