Criterion // 1939 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // March 28th, 2011
Did you just call me a cheap and chippy chopper?
Anyone who knows Gilbert and Sullivan (or Animaniacs) is familiar with The Mikado. What you may not know is that in 1939 Universal Pictures released a version of the play in full blown technicolor glory. It featured the popular radio star Kenny Baker in the lead role. It also featured many of the famous D'Oyly Carte performers in the cast. D'Oyly Carte performed Gilbert and Sullivan operas starting in the 1870s, so they knew a thing or two about staging The Mikado. But was this film a brilliant adaptation or a disturbing misfire?
If you thought the names that George Lucas came up with for his Star Wars prequels are silly, get a load of these. Nanki-Poo (Kenny Baker) is the prince of Japan. His father, the Mikado (John Barclay) has declared that the boy must marry the imposing Katisha (Constance Willis). Nanki is horrified and runs off, disguising himself as a humble minstrel.
During his travels he meets the lovely Yum-Yum (Jean Colin) and falls top knot over sandals for her. Unfortunately she is betrothed to the idiotic Ko-Ko (Martyn Green), a tailor who has recently been promoted to the post of high executioner. There is only one small problem, Ko-Ko's first victim is himself. He does his best to avoid performing this execution but things get a bit sticky. The Mikado demands that executions start taking place. But Nanki-Poo, Yum-Yum and Ko-Ko come up with a cunning plan (did I just write that sentence?). Will they be able to pull a fast one on the Mikado or is it all going to end in beheadings?
Did I mention this all takes place in the town of Titipu and that a grown man sings a song in which the phrase "Tit-willow" is used about a hundred times. Thank you Gilbert and Sullivan for keeping it real.
1939 was a landmark year in cinema history. So many classic films came out that I don't think we've ever seen another year quite like it. The Mikado shares a lot of qualities that are found in another classic from that year, The Wizard of Oz. The singing, the colors, the costumes, even the acting styles are so similar that these could be sister productions.
The best way to approach this version of The Mikado may be to think of it as pure fantasy inspired by an Englishman's perception of Japan. Everything in the film feels artificial, well maybe that's not quite right, more like a dream. Exteriors are obviously filmed on expansive stages. The songs have an operatic feel, but you've got Kenny Baker doing his best '30s style crooner. The costumes appear Japanese at a glance, but you'll see a variety of Asian influences combined with exaggerated and highly stylized designs. The acting is very stagey at times, not surprising coming from a crew so well versed in the stage productions of Gilbert and Sullivan's plays. Even this adds a dimension of the surreal to the whole thing. In short, it plays out like a Gilbert and Sullivan fever dream.
But I can't deny that it is entertaining. Universal went all out with the technicolor process here, but instead of going for the rich deep colors like we see in Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of OZ everything here is done in vibrant pastels. So even if you aren't a fan of a particular song or lose the plot in all the singing, you can still look at candy colored spectacle bursting out on the screen.
Presentations of The Mikado usually clock in at around two hours or so, but this version has been streamlined down to 90 minutes. Much of this is done by editing out scenes and re-structuring them. This causes the movie to zip along at a fast pace as well. You don't have to wait long for a new scene or song to start up. All this in spite of the fact that a prologue was added for this film adaptation.
As for the songs themselves, they are classic Gillbert and Sullivan, filled with clever yet silly wordplay. They move the story along or develop characters as well as provide a catchy tune to stay stuck in your head hours after you've finished the film. All the performers jump into the singing with gusto and all of them have obviously worked with these songs before. Kenny Baker is the only one who seems out of place. His style doesn't fit well in the grand scheme of things, and yet it doesn't hurt the film.
The performances are all over the top and fun. Martyn Green as Ko-Ko has the lion's share of the clowning and mugging. He does it well, but I know the same folks who find the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz annoying are going to detest Ko-Ko. Green has got some great skill with physical comedy and does some great pratfalls and bumbling antics that had me chuckling. I also enjoyed the pompous performance of Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah.
Criterion's Blu-ray presentation of The Mikado is visually stunning. The details on the costumes and sets are crisp and clear. The colors don't bleed in the least and for a film this old I was surprised at how great the picture looked. Not a touch of softness to be seen. The audio was a bit harder to determine. For the most part the dialogue and music are well balanced, and the songs are fairly clear. But when you have more than one person singing things get muddled very quickly. The opening number of the film is performed by a large number of the cast and I had no clue what they were singing. My wife who is a bit more familiar with the play, said that it was a shame because the song was pretty funny. But she was having trouble with these ensemble numbers too. I believe this is something beyond Criterion's control and has more to do with the source recording materials they had back in 1939.
As usual, Criterion provides a good slate of extras for you to delve into. First up are two separate interviews packed with information and background on the play and the film. Mike Leigh, the director of Topsy-Turvy talks for 18 minutes and really delves into the filmmaking style in this version of the play. Scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr. talk for about half an hour going into the evolution of the play and how that affected the final product we see here. Both interviews acknowledge the pros and cons of this version and provide an excellent framing that helped me appreciate this movie a bit more.
You also get a silent film promoting the 1926 stage performance of The Mikado as performed by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. It's amazing to see how different the costumes are in this silent reel. They are actually more realistic than what you see in the 1939 film. There is also a deleted song from the film presented with a brief bookend of scenes, so you can see where it would have appeared. Was that a cameo with Hitler?
Also included are an essay booklet written by Geoffry O'Brien as well as four audio cues from jazzy versions of The Mikado performed in 1939. These were great fun to hear.
This is a silly, silly movie. It's not meant to be taken seriously at all. Still, some people may be offended by the portrayal of the Japanese in this film. And although all this stems from the original play written in 1885, it still has plenty of moments that some viewers may find derogatory.
Because of the editing, and the issue with the ensemble numbers, I don't think I'd recommend this version as a first exposure to The Mikado. I had never seen the play before and got lost a few times with some of the plot twists. Using context and my wife's helpful hints I was able to get back on track, but it definitely affected my enjoyment of the film. This movie is targeted more toward folks who are familiar with the story and just want to see it done in a golden age of Hollywood kind of way.
It's big. It's bold. It's Gilbert and Sullivan and 1939 technicolor with a dash of D'Oyly Carte. Combine it with Criterion's recent release of Topsy-Turvy and you have a solid night of entertainment.
The punishment must fit the crime, but there was none committed. Not Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 2.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1939
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scene
* Short Film
* Radio Performances
* Wikipedia: D'Oyly Carte Opera Company