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Mikado, The (1939)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Mikado, The (1939)
DirectorVictor Schertzinger
Production CompanyG and S Films
ProducerGeoffrey Toye
AdaptationGeoffrey Toye
Based upon the opera byGilbert and Sullivan
PhotographyWilliam Skall
Music played byLondon Symphony Orchestra
ConductorGeoffrey Toye

Cast: Kenny Baker (Nanki-Poo); Martyn Green (Ko-Ko); Sydney Granville (Pooh-Bah); John Barclay (The Mikado); Gregory Stroud (Pish-Tush); Jean Colin (Yum-Yum); Constance Willis (Katisha)

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In the Japanese town of Titi-pu, wandering minstrel Nanki-Poo falls in love with the delectable Yum-Yum and finds himself caught up in the convoluted machinations of the Mikado's legal system, all of which seem to point towards his imminent execution.

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Although sound had come to the cinema a decade earlier, it was not until 1939 that a filmed Gilbert and Sullivan operetta reached the screen. The D'Oyly Carte Company had turned down numerous Hollywood offers, but was eventually persuaded that conductor-turned-producer Geoffrey Toye could be trusted to respect the originals.

Toye went to Hollywood to research the techniques of film musical production, in the process hiring director-composer Victor Schertzinger and popular radio singer Kenny Baker for the lead role of Nanki-Poo. Reasoning that it would be easier to teach established Gilbert and Sullivan performers screen acting than vice versa, Toye filled the other roles largely with D'Oyly Carte veterans. It was one of the first British feature films to be made in Technicolor, a decision that dictated the choice of operetta, as The Mikado offered greater opportunities for colourful and exotic sets and costumes.

Toye boasted that "there is not a word sung or spoken in the film that Gilbert did not write, and not a note is played that Sullivan did not compose", which is technically accurate, but numerous changes were made in order to adapt the operetta to the screen. Cuts to both dialogue and musical numbers reduced the running time by a quarter (the most high-profile loss being Ko-Ko's famous "little list" song), while other elements were reshuffled, most notably in a wordless prologue that attempts to set the scene in a mixture of mime and song, but which is so convoluted that it's arguably incomprehensible to those unfamiliar with the original, making the effort somewhat wasted.

But things improve considerably when the operetta proper starts - wisely, Schertzinger and Toye respected the artificiality of the original and made no attempt at opening it out beyond creating sets slightly more lavish than would be the case with a stage production and adding a few witty visual touches, such as a sword falling off the wall and symbolically beheading a statue.

The standout performances are by Martyn Green as Ko-Ko and Sydney Granville as Pooh-Bah, while John Barclay's Mikado exploits all the ghoulish black humour of Gilbert's original to the hilt, and opera veteran Constance Willis is a suitably monstrous Katisha, triumphing over some quite severe cuts to her material. The film was originally planned as the first in a series of "approved" Gilbert and Sullivan features, though the onset of war prevented any more being made.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Three little maids (2:03)
2. Ko-Ko's deal (1:03)
3. A how-de-do (4:06)
4. Willow titwillow (4:44)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)
Dickinson, Thorold (1903-1984)
Kalmus, Natalie (1887-1965)