On a tree by a river, Judge William Lee sang, "Willow, tit-willow, tit-willow."
"It was my father's lifelong dream to play the role of Ko-Ko in The Mikado."—Melinda Marx Leung
The Bell Telephone Hour was a long-running NBC Radio program, started in 1940, that featured classical and Broadway music. From 1959 to 1968, it was the television show, one of the first to be telecast exclusively in color, which brought the biggest talents of the stage into the homes of America. Video Artists International has released several compilation DVDs from the series, usually gathering onto one disc the numerous appearances of a star. Their latest release, Groucho Marx in The Mikado, features one entire episode wherein the comedian starred in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera adapted for the one-hour timeslot.
This condensed version of The Mikado, originally aired on April 29, 1960, was produced by Martyn Green (The Stingiest Man in Town) whose lengthy stage career made him an expert on the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. Groucho Marx (Duck Soup) was a great admirer of the works of Gilbert and Sullivan and his daughter recalls that Groucho would have traded places with Green for the pleasure of performing in all those works. It is evident that Groucho is having a ball playing the High Executioner Ko-Ko in this production. Groucho's presence is unmistakable but he puts in a genuine performance as the character that dispels any thought that his participation is a result of stunt casting. It's a rare chance to watch Groucho performing not as Groucho.
I have to admit that I found the story a little difficult to follow in the first act. Perhaps it was due to the sometimes muddy audio quality or maybe the cuts to the story were just too much. Viewers with some familiarity with the story of The Mikado will likely have no problem understanding what's going on. Nevertheless, this is a handsome production and the music and singing are very enjoyable.
The original telecast was in color but no color recordings are known to exist, as a note on the back cover explains. That's unfortunate because it's obvious that a lot of care was taken in respect to the sets and costumes. It looks like the effort put in to stage this opera was as full as a television production would allow. One studio stage is used very efficiently to accommodate two main locations. The camera angles make it plain that considerable planning went in to blocking the scenes as every shot is composed with foreground and background smartly arranged.
The surviving black and white full frame picture is disappointing. The picture is mostly stable but a few instances of videotape glitches are unavoidable. The video quality lacks subtle degrees of shading and fine detail is lost in the uniformly soft image. It's clear which performer is doing what but we can't appreciate the fine patterns of their costumes. I've always had trouble hearing the lyrics when groups sing as a chorus and with this DVD I strained to hear the content of some of the songs. Again, viewers who already know the music and songs will have an easier time, I'm sure. However, whenever Groucho sings, I can make out just about every word he says. Maybe it's his manner of speech or maybe it's simply because his solo voice isn't competing with others but I enjoyed every number when he was featured. Another notable performer is opera star Helen Traubel who sings opposite Groucho in the role of Katisha.
Video Artists International has assembled some nice extras to supplement this episode. The original Bell Telephone advertisements are preserved as a playable selection separate from the main program. Listed on the back cover as "audio commentaries" are five audio interviews illustrated with still photos and clips from the episode. The interviews include Dick Cavett, talking about his friendship with Groucho Marx, and Yvonne Chauveau Dollard, the widow of Martyn Green. Also interviewed, the actresses who played the "three little maids" recall their experiences working on the production. One of those actresses is Groucho's daughter Melinda who shares some wonderful memories of the legendary comic. The best interview belongs to Barbara Meister who remembers her disappointment when offered the role of Yum-Yum because she wanted to sing serious opera—she was auditioning for the New York City Opera when the conductor cast her. The audio interviews are newly recorded but sound like they were recorded from a speakerphone. Several text screens cover biographies of the cast.
A wonderful bonus clip is a 12-minute excerpt from the 1963 telecast of H.M.S. Pinafore starring Martyn Green. This clip is in color and is generally better video quality than the feature. It is a great pleasure to see Green performing in his element and this clip again demonstrates that great care was taken to stage these productions for the cameras. Comparing the compositions of these live broadcasts to any performance on television today suggests the trend over the decades has favored laziness.
It's surprising to realize that there was a time when television entertained with sophisticated productions. Groucho Marx in The Mikado is a treasure that's resurfaced on DVD and even though the technical quality is disappointing, that hardly diminishes the exuberance of the production. Fans of Groucho Marx or of Gilbert and Sullivan or of vintage television will enjoy this disc very much.
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Studio: Video Artists International
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