The Mikado (1939)

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  • directed by Victor Schertzinger
  • starring Kenny Baker, Martyn Green, Sydney Granville, Jean Colin, John Barclay, Constance Willis
  • The son of The Mikado of Japan falls for a girl who is engaged to her guardian.

“Here’s a state of things, to her life she clings. Matrimonial devotion doesn’t seem to suit her notion–burial it brings!”

Something of a supergroup of productions, this film took members of the legendary D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, brought them under the umbrella of the Hollywood system with an American director and American lead actor, and somehow maintained the integrity of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. There were a lot of independent parts that contributed to the whole; it failing would have shocked nobody. I enjoyed the hell out of it, though. I had dreams in Technicolor and 12 hours later I’m still humming a lot of the music. It was a one-of-a-kind type of thing that I’ve been struggling to classify, something that could only be achieved by mashing such different worlds together. Without the participation of the D’Oyle Carte, you end up with a not-as-convincing production that screams film adaptation. Without a workhorse film guy like Schertzinger in charge and the unrefined Kenny Baker as Nanki-Poo, you’re left with something like a filmed live performance. This toed that line well enough but did end up leaning much more towards the stage. Schertzinger was able to soften this sense slightly with editing and filmic compositions, but there is never a shred of doubt that this is a stage play–as it was for so many performances at the Savoy Theatre–being filmed on a stage. A curtain could have dropped at any point between scenes or it could have been revealed at the end that a live audience had been sitting there the entire time and I wouldn’t have flinched.

At this point, I should mention that I am complete foreigner to Gilbert and Sullivan, my only experience being Mike Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy and that one West Wing episode where Ainsley Hayes uses her knowledge of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance to get Lionel Tribby and the rest of her new coworkers to like her. From this plotline, written by Aaron Sorkin who is either good at or at least likes to think he’s good at capturing the interests of wealthy, privileged, supremely intelligent individuals, my impression was that Gilbert and Sullivan was right in the wheelhouse for such people (Sam Seaborn) and not many others (me). I now realize my wrongful prejudice by what I recognized in The Mikado as universal appeal, with brilliant music, lyrics, performances, and story.

It still isn’t easy to “get” them and just watching The Mikado isn’t going to help me wrap my head around the essence of the pair’s work, but I did notice a unique style and sensibility to this story of manipulating a mandated public execution to somehow benefit all parties involved in a love triangle—a love quadrilateral, more accurately. Never before have I seen topics of suicide, political corruption, unrequited love, and beheading dealt with in such a fanciful way. Characters literally discuss their impending deaths with smiles on their faces. It never feels uneven, however, I think due to the visual design that comes from Gilbert’s idea to set the story in a fictionalized version of Japan during an unknown era. “The Mikado of the opera was an imaginary monarch of a remote period and cannot by any exercise of ingenuity be taken to be a slap on an existing institution,” he remarked. This covered his ass when it came to the thinly veiled shots he fired at the British ruling class, but also aided in sugarcoating a lot of the dark themes explored. It’s hard for anything to ring too seriously with Marcel Vertès’ vivid and playful sets and costumes bringing the wonderful Japan of your dreams to life on screen.

I have respect for all of the Gilbert and Sullivan scholars out there who had problems with some of the decisions that had to be made. Some songs were sung by the wrong character, some out of order, and many gone altogether. Obviously, I didn’t notice any of that, and I also won’t join in the complaint that Kenny Baker was a terrible choice for Nanki-Poo. Sure, in contrast to the D’Oyly Carte members who bleed the material he stood out, but he successfully performed some of the most intricate songs I’ve ever heard and did so in convincing fashion. The music and lyrics seem to have been written foremost as a challenge or dare to actors, stringing together phonetic sounds with advanced English and blending it with one or two other simultaneous melodies as if to say, if you can do this then you can do anything. Baker was stiff here and there but he did survive. That compliment coming from a guy that thought he contributed to one of the more unfortunate threads in the otherwise unfortunate Marx Brothers film, At the Circus. Anyway, if he were ever uncomfortable in a scene it was bound to be masked by the shadow cast by Martyn Green who hit every note perfectly and delivered the best performance of the film as the least intimidating executioner you’ll ever see in your life.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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