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The Criterion Collection could easily play safe by sticking to its Janus classics and the better-known films of acknowledged genius directors. The label instead casts a much wider web, bringing in occasion exotic items nobody else would touch. New to Blu-ray is an old-school adaptation of an 1885 Gilbert & Sullivan show that recreates the classic musical staging without radical alterations for the screen. The 1939 The Mikado certainly follows no present-day vogue, and as such is a very special treat: a 125 year-old musical that's just as entertaining now as it was then. Gilbert & Sullivan's supremely witty satire on political bureaucracy is still highly relevant. The beautiful color (originally Technicolor) images are impressive on their own. Criterion is releasing this amusing show in tandem with Mike Leigh's comedy-drama about the development of the G&S musical, Topsy-Turvy.
The original musical play of The Mikado was apparently conceived as a reaction to a traveling cultural exhibit from Japan. Inspired by the colorful costumes, Gilbert & Sullivan launched their show in an eclectic spirit that favored Japanese designs but pulled in whatever aspects of the then-current Orientalism fad of that appealed to them. This accounts for a large statue of Buddha in the Japanese official's office -- its stomach doubles as a hiding place when the official needs to avoid unwanted visitors.
Beginning as a satire of Oriental romance fantasies, the show soon becomes a wicked lampoon of pompous, cowardly and conniving politicians. The characters' silly names are only the beginning of the fun. Told that he must marry the horrid old spinster Katisha (Constance Willis), the Mikado's son Nanki-Poo (Kenny Baker) disguises himself as a trombone player (!) and runs away. In the town of Titipu, he falls madly in love with the gorgeous, sheltered Yum-Yum (Jean Colin), only to discover that her guardian Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, is Yum-Yum's fiancé. The clownish Ko-Ko is really only a common tailor, and his exalted office was created to enforce the Mikado's law that anybody caught flirting should have their head cut off. The highly flirtatious Ko-Ko hasn't executed anybody because he'd have to start with himself. For that reason all the other Lords have quit, leaving Pooh-bah (Sydney Granville) to assume all of their jobs: he's the Lord High Everything Else.
Realizing that Yum-Yum loves the now suicidal Nanki-Poo, Ko-Ko proposes a strange bargain -- the two can marry provided that Nanki-Poo voluntarily presents himself for execution after one month. This deal puts in motion a comedy of errors and ironic reversals, with the squeamish Ko-Ko only pretending to execute Nanki-Poo, etc. When The Mikado (John Barclay) and Katisha show up looking for Nanki-Poo, it looks like everybody may end up in boiling oil.
The music of The Mikado is delightful. Sullivan's melodies A Wand'ring Minstrel I and Three Little Maids are still recognizable in the culture at large, but when the singers wrap their tongues around Gilbert's amazingly convoluted lyrics, we marvel at the sheer level of wit in material written when the Eiffel Tower was being built. 1 The movie is also a riot to look at. The costumes are a hilarious mish-mash of authentic Japanese styles and whatever crazy ideas the designers could come up with. In one brief cutaway, we see the "minstrel" Nanki-Poo playing a trombone made of bamboo. It may be just a wild guess, but the motions of the "Three Little Maids" resemble the dancing mushrooms in Walt Disney's Fantasia. Could they have been an inspiration for them?
The show also records the performance style of the legendary D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, long situated at the Savoy Theater. Several of the leads are D'Oyly Carte players, and the mix of pompous performing, amazingly articulate singing and slapstick Music Hall gags is indeed impressive. In a song called There's a How-De-Do, Ko-Ko prances around the background dancing an incredibly funny jig, because the romantic leads' hopes have been dashed. Pooh-Bah (a character name that has become synonymous with "Head Honcho") constantly reminds Ko-Ko of his many offices, which means that official decisions may be delayed because he frequently has to confer with himself. The plan to let Nanki-Poo marry Yum-Yum falls apart when Ko-Ko & Pooh-Bah's discover a law stating that the wife of any man executed for flirting must be buried alive with him!
Criterion's extras explain the film's new prologue, meant to explain events that in the play are only talked about. We also get discussions about the hiring of an American director, Victor Schertzinger, to head the film. Curiously, much of the comedy depends on a constant flow of morbid ideas -- torture, executions, death. The jokes and situations have nothing to do with Japan, but instead criticize the lame bureaucracy of England, with its petty kingdoms defended by pompous appointed officials. When somebody with real authority wants Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah to actually conduct business in accordance to their responsibilities, they run in circles like scared rabbits.
Morbidity is the last thing on our minds while watching The Mikado -- we're instead smiling at the showmanship and cleverness of the entire enterprise. I'm really grateful that Criterion has put this one out.
DVD Blu-ray of The Mikado has a splendid Technicolor feel. The film elements must have been in fine shape as the transfer is bright and devoid of dirt or other flaws. The clear uncompressed audio track enables us to enjoy the dense, clever lyrics and some of the beautiful melodies. We appreciate the English subtitles, for helping us to recognize an unusual word here and there.
For extras, we get a pleasant interview with director and Gilbert & Sullivan fan Mike Leigh, and G&S historians Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr.. Geoffrey O'Brien contributes the informative insert booklet essay. A film from 1926 is a fascinating advertising promo for the Opera Company. Even more interesting is a deleted musical snippet where Ko-Ko sings I've Got A Little List, a song about the ample supply of possible execution subjects, "who won't be missed". An image of Hitler appears, along with a reference to the "expendable" appeaser, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
Finally, an audio extra contains excerpts of 1939 radio broadcasts of stage productions of two New York adaptations of the musical, The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mikado Blu-ray rates:
1. Kids today discovering the wonderfully smart-aleck wiseass comedy of, say, old Looney Tunes cartoons are amazed that anybody back in the 1930s and '40s could possibly have an off-the-wall, irreverent sense of humor. Our myopia is such that we expect something from the 1880s to be pickled in sobriety. But The Mikado is really funny.
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T'was Ever Thus.