By the late 1930s, the Savoy opera, The Mikado by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, had proven itself a wildly popular phenomena fifty-years after its original production by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Because producers failed to acquire copyrights in the U.S., two separate Broadway shows with a jazz theme at the center were in full swing. At the same time, a film adaptation that would have the composer Victor Schertzinger direct and Geoffrey Toye rearrange the music was under way. Of the three and despite some minor alterations to the storyline (as opposed to everything else in the other two), Schertzinger's film stays fairly true to Gilbert & Sullivan's original intent and the opera's wonderfully comedic spirit.
One of the many unique aspects of the musical is the fact that its style and performance is distinctly meant for the stage — a production incredibly difficult to translate to film, where a bit of paraphrasing is a requirement. The story follows a young Japanese prince, Nanki-Poo (Kenny Baker), running away on the day of his arranged marriage to the rather unsightly Katisha (Constance Willis). Disguised as a wandering minstrel, he falls head-over-heels for Yum-Yum (Jean Colin), but she's already betrothed to the village tailor, Ko-Ko (Martyn Green), who is later promoted to the station of Lord High Executioner. In the middle of this love triangle, we have a hilarious romp that breaks out into music with a very specific setting and design.
Although he succeeds more often than he fails, Schertzinger clearly respects the material, retaining much of its animated jubilance and witty banter. He also makes audiences feel they're watching a stage production rather than a movie version of the comedic opera. When Katisha arrives in Titipu searching for her fiancé and the entire ensemble sings in the Finale Act I, we know the story is in expert hands as the camera moves about the whole set dramatizing the convivial confrontation. An earlier scene shows Ko-Ko interrupting Nanki-Poo's suicide, where the two men agree on a death that would mutually benefit both. The back and forth between them is beautifully well-done and hilarious — a style of dialogue writing that's greatly missed in most modern-day features (and here, I'm primarily thinking of that miserable dreck 'The Tourist').
The Mikado is also intended as a satire of certain British practices and politics during the Victorian era, and I've always felt that Schertzinger somehow downplays, however lightly, this facet of the opera. Still, the director does wonderfully in preserving the plot's most durable and unmistakable theme — making light of death and capital punishment. Martyn Greene as Ko-Ko, single-handedly steals the show with his splendid dance routine during "Here's a how-de-do," where he breaks news of both Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum's impending death. The tone is kept weirdly upbeat and ironically jovial. Later, when The Mikado (John Barclay) shows his excitement in putting to death Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah (Sydney Granville) and Pitti-Sing (Elisabeth Paynter), this same absurd cheerfulness is maintained and strangely amusing to watch.
Schertzinger's adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan's most popular and enduring Savoy opera, The Mikado, may not be an overwhelming success, but it's a satisfying film version that maintains much of story's eccentrically witty spirit. With such memorable song numbers as "A Wand'ring Minstrel I," "Three Little Maids from School," and "Willow, Tit-Willow," both the movie and musical play continue as classic figures with a permanent place in the collective consciousness of popular culture.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This Blu-ray edition of Victor Schertzinger's 'The Mikado' comes courtesy of The Criterion Collection (spine #559) on a Region A locked, BD50 disc and housed in their standard clear keepcase. Accompanying the disc is a 16-page booklet with glossy pictures of the film. It also features an excellent essay entitled "Celluloid Savoy" by Geoffrey. There are no trailers or promos before being greeted by the distributor's normal menu options.
Victor Schertzinger's 'The Mikado' arrives on Blu-ray with a spectacular and eye-catching picture quality. Struck from a 35mm interpositive, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is lively and energetic.
Displaying a wide array of rich, vivid colors, from full-bodied reds and greens to the soft pastels of the various dresses worn by the maids, the high-def transfer is a marvel which brings the classic comic opera to life. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the video also comes with crisp, pitch-perfect contrast, allowing for terrific visibility of the background and showing appreciable dimensionality. Black levels are equally splendid and accurate with strong gradational detail.
Definition and resolution are quite lovely and a definite upgrade from the 1998 DVD release by Image Entertainment. Hairs, including the very light mustache over Katisha's lips, are sharply rendered. The outlines of small objects and the ornate stage design are clearly visible. Fine textures and elaborate stitching of the costumes are distinct and discernible.
In the end, the classic film version of Gilbert & Sullivan's satire looks beautiful in high definition.
The original mono soundtrack has also been remastered specially for this Criterion Collection release, and the results are impressive for a musical over seventy years old.
Despite being limited to the center channel, the uncompressed PCM track comes with a great deal of acoustical presence and brilliant fidelity. From the random chatter of villagers running about to the large chorus numbers, listeners can make out each distant voice of the ensemble cast, and dialogue reproduction is terrific with the wonderful repartee perfectly fluid and lucid. The mix exhibits excellent clarity when the music fills the screen, cleanly and sharply distinguishing between the highs and mids as well as each instrument playing. Bass carries the right tone during these same musical acts, providing this Blu-ray of 'The Mikado (1939)' with a splendid and magnificent audio presentation.
The Criterion Collection hatches a new and original set of bonus features just for this Blu-ray release of Victor Schertzinger's 'The Mikado.'
Victor Schertzinger's 'The Mikado' is the film adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan's most beloved and wildly popular comedic opera. For some fairly obvious reasons, the production doesn't quite compare to watching a live stage performance, but Schertzinger does a terrific job behind the camera, delivering an amusing rendition of the classic musical. The Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection comes with an excellent audio and video presentation and a whole new set of bonus features. For fans of both the movie and the Savoy opera, this a recommended high-def release, one that's sure to please everyone.