As the only film of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera brought to the screen with the participation of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, Victor Schertzinger’s 1939 Technicolor The Mikado is a unique specimen; however one rates it, there is nothing with which it can be compared. Rupert D’Oyly Carte, son of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s partner Richard D’Oyly Carte, had over several decades thrown himself with great energy into keeping the Savoy operas alive as a popular performance tradition. He had resisted granting film rights to producers likely to take Hollywood-style liberties with that tradition but was persuaded by Geoffrey Toye, the opera company’s former musical director, to take a chance on the medium, with Toye producing under the aegis of the newly formed Gilbert and Sullivan Productions. There was a certain inevitability in the chosen vehicle’s being The Mikado, the team’s greatest triumph and the delight of a thousand amateur theatrical troupes and parlor sing-alongs.
The result was an Anglo-American hybrid, with the Hollywood veteran Schertzinger directing and the popular crooner Kenny Baker (a radio sidekick of Jack Benny’s) as Nanki-Poo, but filmed at Pinewood Studios, outside London, with an otherwise British cast. The D’Oyly Carte chorus played a crucial role, but surprisingly, only a few of the leads were taken by regular members of the company, notably Sydney Granville, as Pooh-Bah, and the extraordinary Martyn Green—a rising star since the retirement of Sir Henry Lytton—as Ko-Ko. For some reason, Darrell Fancourt, who with his cavernous basso and extravagant peals of laughter had made the role of the Mikado his own since joining the company in 1920 (he played the part onstage some three thousand times), was passed over in favor of John Barclay, an acceptable but not overwhelming alternative.
Even more surprising was the willingness of Toye and D’Oyly Carte to allow extensive cutting and rearranging of the operetta, Toye’s technically accurate statement that “there is no word sung or spoken in the film that Gilbert did not write, and not a note is played that Sullivan did not compose” notwithstanding. The goal, presumably, was to allow a ninety-minute running time, but in the process a good many well-loved numbers were removed, and those that remained were often rushed along at a brisk, not to say breakneck, tempo. The other major alteration was the decision to summarize the opera’s convoluted backstory—the Mikado commanding his son to marry the hideous Katisha; the son hiding out under the identity of the wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo and falling in love with the maiden Yum-Yum, despite her engagement to her guardian, Ko-Ko; and Ko-Ko coming under sentence of death for flirting—in a largely silent prologue that nicely shows off Marcel Vertés’ exquisite, candy-colored production design but otherwise frustratingly defers The Mikado’s musical and verbal pleasures.
A filmmaker with major musical credentials, Victor Schertzinger was a logical enough choice. He had been a violin prodigy and then a popular songwriter and film composer—he wrote the score for Thomas Ince’s 1916 extravaganza Civilization—before venturing into directing in 1917, with Ince as producer. He enjoyed robust success in that last capacity: during the silent era, he sometimes directed as many as eight films a year, and he had upwards of eighty films to his credit by the time he undertook The Mikado. Other highlights of his career were the Grace Moore vehicle One Night of Love (1934), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and the first of the Bing Crosby–Bob Hope “road” vehicles, Road to Singapore (1940) and Road to Zanzibar (1941). He remained equally productive as a composer, on his own films as well as others’, and today is perhaps best remembered for the score of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Love Parade (1929) and for two standards cowritten with Johnny Mercer, “I Remember You” and “Tangerine.” He died at fifty-three, after completing 1942’s The Fleet’s In.
Schertzinger’s approach to directing The Mikado is stately and tasteful: he keeps everything within the bounds of a distinctly old-fashioned theatrical tradition, as if the audience were to be transported into a box at the Savoy Theatre to magically relive the greatest hit of 1885, with scarcely a hint that any time had passed. In his New York Times review, Frank S. Nugent observed: “The suspicion exists that Victor Schertzinger and Geoffrey Toye . . . have erred more on the side of fidelity than elsewhere. Too many of the sequences end as though the curtain had just been lowered, or pause as though the singers were trying to determine whether the applause justified an encore.” Thorold Dickinson—himself on the verge of directing such remarkable films as The Arsenal Stadium Mystery and Gaslight—assisted Schertzinger as unit director but found the production “absolutely worthless” (although he claimed to have learned “a good deal about color and texture” while working on it). His own contribution, he said, was limited to incorporating several caricatural shots of Hitler and Neville Chamberlain into Ko-Ko’s patter song “I’ve Got a Little List”—but the song was cut, if not before release then shortly thereafter. This astonishing deletion may well have been due to political discomfort with Dickinson’s pointed inserts, since Chamberlain’s diplomacy of appeasement was still in place, although some viewers may have been troubled in any case by Gilbert’s reference to “the nigger serenader,” then still extant in the D’Oyly Carte text (it was revised in the 1940s, a concession prompted largely, according to Rupert D’Oyly Carte, by objections from American audiences).
But if the film has been attacked as both too faithful and not faithful enough, the fact remains that its peculiar pleasures are not to be found anywhere else, and anyone with an affection for The Mikado must be profoundly grateful that it was made—and regret that no further such experiments took place. Toye apparently anticipated other Gilbert and Sullivan films, but these were curtailed by the war and would have been commercially unlikely prospects in the postwar world. As it turned out, Sidney Gilliat’s crisply respectful The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (1953) would be the last cinematic reflection of the old Savoyard heritage until Mike Leigh decided to plunge in with Topsy-Turvy in 1999.
The unmodified theatricality of the filmed Mikado, often taken as a defect, is actually what is most fascinating about it. To have adapted The Mikado to the norms of late-thirties filmmaking would have been to destroy the almost kabuki-like stylization of Gilbert and Sullivan’s theater, a stylization that incorporates the unrestrained silliness of music hall and English pantomime, elaborate parodies of popular romance and melodrama, vigorous topical satire, and (in Gilbert’s most inspired lyrics) flights of verbal invention worthy of Lewis Carroll or Edward Lear. The theatrical alchemy achieved by writer and composer grew out of a curious doubleness reflecting two very different temperaments. The Mikado epitomizes the way the Savoy operas manage to have everything both ways: it celebrates love and joy and youth while making jokes out of torture, execution, and suicide, and revealing its young lovers to be fundamentally just as vain and heartless as those who attempt to thwart them.
It is always startling to grasp just how cruel are the motives underlying Gilbert’s sense of character. His is a world in which generosity is unknown, and every assertion of charity and disinterestedness a hypocritical deception. By a miracle of art, Sullivan’s music infuses Gilbert’s librettos with a variousness of texture and feeling, by turns plaintive, ominous, ebullient, jubilant. Gilbert standing alone would create a dry and acrid atmosphere; Sullivan without Gilbert’s edge would drift—as he ultimately did—toward sentimental pastiche. The warmth and exhilaration of Sullivan’s music give emotional life to Gilbert’s splenetic caricatures; the unflinching harshness of Gilbert’s worldview bracingly comments on the happy illusions nurtured by the music.
These contradictions at the core of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas are perhaps the secret of their theatrical force, but that stylized theatricality posed problems for a screen adaptation. Movie audiences expected sympathetic characters with a hint of emotional depth. By casting the boyishly likable Kenny Baker as Nanki-Poo, Schertzinger tried to turn him into a “straight” romantic foil for the comical Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah (something like Allen Jones vis-à-vis the Marx Brothers in A Night at the Opera), but Gilbert’s Nanki-Poo is a parody of the comic-opera lover, ruthless in his self-interest and callously indifferent to anyone else’s suffering. Baker carries off the singing reasonably well but, with his gee-whiz sincerity, looks as if he would be more at home behind the soda fountain he worked at in The Goldwyn Follies (1937); his desire to please softens the Gilbertian bite of the proceedings.
With Sydney Granville, Martyn Green, and Elizabeth Paynter (as the roguish, scene-stealing Pitti-Sing), we get, by contrast, the authentic touch. (Constance Willis is also quite good as Katisha, but the role itself is diminished by the omission of most of her songs.) Granville, a quintessential Savoyard veteran who joined the D’Oyly Carte company in 1907, gives Pooh-Bah the gravity he requires. This Lord High Everything Else, a monster of sanctimony, corruption, and unctuous self-deprecation, is the true center of the opera, the embodiment of the kind of person who in Gilbert’s vision of things makes the world run; the slightest hint of clowning or self-awareness would destroy the tenuous plausibility that even this most implausible of stories requires. The brilliantly gifted Green did more than any performer to keep the D’Oyly Carte productions fresh during his heyday in the thirties and forties, and The Mikado captures him at his peak. His superbly light singing and impeccable diction made his patter song interpretations definitive; he was a master of adroit music hall acrobatics and, beyond all that, a sensitive actor able to inject the comedy with a hint of somberness that made his characterizations all the richer.
The resplendent color cinematography of Bernard Knowles and William Skall sets us down from the start in an operetta paradise far indeed from the realities of 1939. In its quaint way, The Mikado offers as much of a parallel reality as its contemporaries The Wizard of Oz and The Thief of Bagdad, even if it can hardly compare with their fully realized cinematic fantasy. This Mikado was born antique, yet the very obdurateness with which it resists being transformed into a movie musical of its moment gives it a strange toughness. Like few other films, it offers a taste of a kind of theatrical experience that was displaced by movies, preserved here with an almost religious devotion. In the hands of a more visionary director—Lubitsch, for instance, or (even more appropriately) Michael Powell—it might have been something very different and perhaps more cinematically remarkable, but it has its own peculiar magic: the magic of something stolen from time and history, an inviolate world of performance protected from change.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, and The Fall of the House of Walworth. He is editor in chief of the Library of America.