Universal // 1983 // 112 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Harold Gervais (Retired) // September 23rd, 2010
Broadway's smash hit is now the movie!
Few names & places are more important to the modern American theater than Joe Papp & New York's Public Theater, and when Papp's stage production of Penzance opened in 1980 it was considered something of a revelation. Directed by Wilford Leach and choreographed by Graciela Daniele, The Pirates of Penzance would open to much public and critical acclaim, transfering to Broadway where it would run for 787 performances. In 1983 the production would jump again, this time to film with its cast mostly intact and again directed by Leach.
Not to be confused with an earlier video-taped version of the Public's production of The Pirates of Penzance, Wilford Leach's film version is a difficult film to write about, classify and judge. Indeed this review was stopped & started several times over the course of a couple of weeks and the film re-watched two, three, four times while trying to figure the proper approach. The conclusion I eventually reached was that The Pirates of Penzance is something of a cinematic hybrid. It's an odd blend of direct stage adaptation and traditionally constructed movie. It's a little bit of both and none of either. And if that doesn't make any sense, then very often neither does The Pirates of Penzance.
The theatrical production of Penzance was very much a self-aware & irreverent affair that had more in common with vaudeville and burlesque that it did with the opera halls where Gilbert & Sullivan productions had been residing for the better part of the previous century and this film adaptation is very much a reflection of that aesthetic. The production of the play and the film was more Marx Brothers than light opera and that subversive streak which so defined the humor associated with The Marx Brothers is very much in evidence here. The usual solution for a stage-to-film adaptation would be to open up the film and go for a more realistic presentation but that would totally undercut the value of the stage production and would render a film version more than pointless. In many ways with the theater, artifice is the thing, but with the film medium, artifice is the one thing which cannot be tolerated. So by design the movie adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance is at odds with itself and as such there is an internal tension to the film. It goes without saying that film is a different medium with a different set of requirements and expectations, and to present this kind of musical comedy more or less as is within the confines of a film studio would appear to be flirting with disaster.
To be honest, there are moments where disaster is exactly what The Pirates of Penzance offers up. Jokes fail or fall flat while actors mugging that certainly played to the back rows displays itself onscreen as being awkward. As a modern film going audience we have been trained to not expect our filmed entertainment to slow down and breath. Film editing techniques have taken the air out of movies and it's something of a foreign experience to watch an actor deliver a joke or execute a gag and then hold for the laugh or the reaction. In a lot of ways The Pirates of Penzance is a throwback to the very early days of cinema, and specifically to the earliest Marx Brothers movies, which were themselves film adaptations of theatrical productions they spent months performing. As such, taken within a modern context, Wilford Leach's The Pirates of Penzance stands proud as some kind of anti-film. Yes it has those moments where it all feels like an experiment gone horribly wrong, but then the movie finishes and somehow it all comes together to form something that feels special and unique. Twist it, pull it, break it up and examine certain parts on their own and the whole thing falls apart. Step back and look at the whole puzzle together and a different judgment forms. It's an unlikely candidate to wear the label experimental film but I think that shoe very much fits.
So if the conceit of the movie is experimental in nature and the performances are barely modulated to adjust for the change in medium, how does one look or judge the performances? Is Kevin Kline just hamming it up? Is Linda Ronstadt just supposed to look pretty and sing like an angel? Is Rex Smith supposed to be as wooden as the plank he is forced to walk off of? Not that the answer is unexpected, but yes, yes and yes. And no. There is nothing subtle about the movie's performances, although Angela Lansbury gives it a go in spots -- and it is worth noting she is the singular import to the main cast from productions of the stage version -- but subtle isn't what this filmed production is going for. Yes it's broad and it's frequently loud and brash but what's funny is that when the movie goes for sentiment it hits the mark without feeling forced. It's a balance that is unexpected when it appears and it allows the film a certain level of depth that is welcome.
I would be remiss in my duties if I closed out this section and failed to mention the performance of George Rose as the Major-General Stanley. One of the great character actors of the New York stage, he worked constantly on-stage and on television, especially in the age of live TV, and he is an absolute delight here. Besides making everything his character does funny, he also carries off the show's most difficult musical numbers with the flair and confidence of a master.
The performances in the film underline an aspect of the entire production that hasn't been mentioned yet and that is a constant energy and a real feeling of joy to the production. The movie is in love with its material and that comes through in every aspect of the film. Director Leach adapted the text for its translation to film and some cuts were made to speed things along, but what ended up on-screen sizzles as it quickly moves along. The movie's pace doesn't allow for much thought the first time through as it confidently asks the viewer to buckle up and just enjoy the ride. Yes there may be some groans at obvious gags or wordplay but there is also a level of confidence to the storytelling that makes me wish Leach had been able to make more films. Unlike stage directors such as Harold Prince, Leach hit on a formula for this one film that transferred what he created for the stage and translated it into a film that existed on its own terms. Oh that Prince could have figured out how to do that with his movie version of A Little Night Music. But I digress.
If the film is a little miracle, that it exists on DVD and was released in 2010 is cause to alert the Catholic church. Catalog releases have slowed to a trickle these past couple of years and movies such as The Pirates of Penzance only seem to be available on a custom burn basis, if at all. So Universal is to be thanked for allowing this one to see the light of day as a honest-to-goodness DVD release. I doubt most people know this movie exists but those of us who do probably never thought we would get a chance to purchase it.
So, I suppose I run the risk of being ungrateful when I wish Universal had gone the extra mile and released The Pirates of Penzance on Blu-ray as well. The film is bright and lively with primary colors being the order of the day, and the cinematography by the great Douglas Slocombe (Raiders of the Lost Ark) captures it all beautifully. The film's 2.35:1 aspect ratio underlines and highlights the stage-to-screen roots of the film in a way that embraces what most film adaptations seek to change and/or avoid. For their part, Universal's anamorphic transfer does a nice job of rendering the movie's color palette for home video. Detail is generally good and skin tones aren't washed out at all and in fact appear quite natural. The print looks a little beat up and worn but it is never anything which distracts from the viewing experience. I doubt if the movie has looked this good in a long time and I'm thrilled to see it in all it's scope glory. If you have waited 20+ years to own The Pirates of Penzance, don't hesitate. Yeah, a Blu-ray release would have been nice but come on -- it's The Pirates of Penzance on DVD. Finally.
On the sound side of things, a perfectly serviceable 2.0 track is provided and it does exactly what it needs to do. Dialogue is clear and the musical numbers sound robust & full. Nothing spectacular but just what was both needed and expected. The disc also provides English subtitles. Sadly no features are offered save the movie's theatrical trailer.
It's funny but I clearly remember a draft of the review I wrote in 1999 for the Gilbert & Sullivan movie Topsy-Turvy that contained a paragraph bemoaning the fact that this film version of The Pirates Of Penzance wasn't available on DVD. It only took eleven years, but here you go G&S fans.
While the stage bound aspect of the film will not work for some people, if you give the film a chance and look beneath the surface I think you find a pretty brave and slightly amazing movie. Putting those stage aspects that could bother a person to the side, those coming into the film cold will find what exists to be a beautifully mounted production with some wonderful music.
I honestly don't know if The Pirates of Penzance is a good movie, and
I don't know if you can even call it a movie in any kind of traditional sense,
but it is something of a treasure. On that basis alone charges against it are
dismissed and this court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 1983
MPAA Rating: Rated G