The Mikado (Blu-ray)
Directed by Victor Schertzinger
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 91 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: March 29, 2011
Review Date: March 18, 2011
Premiering on stage for the first time at the Savoy Theater in 1885, Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado was an immediate hit and became arguably their most popular comic opera. Victor Schertzinger’s 1939 movie version of the show tries with waffling success to merge the stage business that made it such a hit with a more cinematic approach to the material. Actually, the movie doesn’t really inhabit either the theatrical or the cinematic realm with surety, and its inconsistencies in trying to accomplish this balancing act prevent the movie from being a total success. But with that classic score and a fine physical production, The Mikado is a reasonably satisfying movie version of a charming stage classic.
The only son (Kenny Baker) of Japan’s ruler The Mikado (John Barclay) finds he’s been promised to the older, very plain Katisha (Constance Willis), so he escapes from his father and masquerades as a minstrel named Nanki-Poo. Landing in the village of Titipu, he immediately becomes smitten with the lovely Yum-Yum (Jean Colin), but she’s been promised to the town’s tailor Ko-Ko (Martyn Green) who’s just been appointed Lord High Executioner. When Ko-Ko learns that the Mikado is displeased he hasn’t killed anyone since his appointment, he realizes he can allow Nanki-Poo to marry his intended and then kill him thirty days later for daring to steal his bride from him. Unfortunately, the Mikado and Katisha arrive before Ko-Ko can carry out his first execution requiring Ko-Ko and his right hand man Pooh-Bah (Sydney Granville) to do some fast thinking to prevent their own deaths at the hands of the angry ruler.
The Mikado is about as Japanese as a Sherlock Holmes story, so despite all the kimonos and elaborate oriental make-ups, there’s a decided British air to the play throughout, something which it has always possessed. Like most stage musicals brought to the screen, there have been deletions to the original score (this film is not for Gilbert and Sullivan purists; it runs barely an hour and a half, about an hour less than the stage version), new scenes added (an almost ten minute prologue acted mostly in pantomime), and song juxtapositions to give top-billed American star Kenny Baker more to sing. None of the cuts or additions harm the material, and all of the most beloved numbers (“The Sun and I,” “A Wand’ring Minstrel,” “Three Little Maids,” “The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring,” “Willow Tit-Willow”) are here and performed admirably. The Mikado was not the first musical directed by Victor Schertzinger (he was Oscar nominated for directing One Night of Love and was a composer with a fair number of hit credits), but his approach is barely cinematic (a few shots from on-high are about it). Most of it features rather static camerawork that predictably cuts from close to medium shots but with a camera that has little mobility. Watching this and then watching The Wizard of Oz (released the same year and both in Technicolor) makes Oz seem as if from another century in its innovations, variety of camera set-ups, and pacing. He’s allowed the stage veterans from the D’Oyly Carte company to do their stage business (pratfalls and stage takes as if they’re waiting for an audience to respond) and give fairly standard broad performances not modified for the screen (the song “Here’s a How-de-do” shows them at their most theatrically inspired), and while the film is not strictly a photographed stage piece, it certainly retains a stagebound feel being shot completely on soundstages.
MGM musical star Kenny Baker, borrowed to serve as the juvenile lead rather than a British singing actor, has a glorious tenor voice, but he does seem a bit out of place among the remaining cast of British performers. Deanna Durbin was sought as the ingénue but was not available, and Jean Colin, who has a pleasant but thin soprano to offer, is the weakest singer in the company as Yum-Yum. D’Oyly Carte veterans Martyn Green and Sydney Granville repeat their stage performances delightfully (if a bit stagily) as Ko-Ko and Pooh-bah respectively while John Barclay (who had played the title role for years in Australia) makes a splendid if less threatening Mikado. Constance Willis’s Katisha lost both of her solos (she has only a few singing lines left in the Mikado’s song), but she’s lots of fun as the overbearing object of no one’s desire. Elizabeth Paynter’s Pitti-Sing has a beautiful voice but isn’t very expert at singing to prerecorded playback.
The film is presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. Originally filmed in Technicolor, the color has not been pumped to the levels of deep saturation that one might find in Blu-rays of The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind. It has pleasing depth, and flesh tones are accurate even through all of the heavy make-up, but there are color variations which keep color tone and saturation levels inconsistent. Sharpness is also erratic with most of the images looking nicely detailed and crisp but occasional scenes lacking in superb focus. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix has resisted the best efforts by Criterion’s engineers to offer a clean, artifact-free soundtrack. While fidelity is quite often astonishingly good for such an ancient recording (the ensemble singing is really wonderful), quieter scenes reveal muffled hiss and attenuated crackle rather constantly throughout the aural presentation. Otherwise, dialogue is easily understood, and there is only minimal distortion in the louder scenes.
All of the visual bonus material is offered in 1080p.
Director Mike Leigh offers his opinions on the film in an 18 ¼-minute video interview with some comparisons to his handling of similar numbers in his movie Topsy-Turvy which dealt with the creation of The Mikado.
Gilbert and Sullivan scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail, Jr. discuss the history of The Mikado in a combination video interview that runs 29 ¼ minutes. Though photographed separately, they seem to have similar opinions as to the strengths and weaknesses of the movie and provide some interesting information about the history of the show as presented by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company through the years from 1885-1982.
A silent film promo for D’Oyly Carte’s 1926 stage production of The Mikado is presented in a sepia-toned (and sometimes hand colored) trailer that runs 3 ¾ minutes.
The deleted song sequence “I’ve Got a Little List” is presented in color and in high definition. It runs 2 ¾ minutes.
Two modernized stage versions of The Mikado were presented on Broadway in 1939, the same year as the film’s release. Four NBC radio excerpts are presented in audio-only form. From The Swing Mikado comes “Three Little Maids” and “The Flowers That Bloom in the Spring,” each lasting 2 minutes. The Hot Mikado which starred Bill “Bojangles” Robinson offers two snippets: “Willow Tit-Willow” (2 ¾ minutes) and Robinson himself performing a song and dance to “A More Humane Mikado” (6 minutes).
The enclosed 18-page booklet contains a cast and crew list, some black and white and hand-colored stills, and an essay on the film's achievements by writer Geoffrey O’Brien.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
3.5/5 (not an average)
Gilbert and Sullivan devotees should be thrilled to receive the 1939 screen version of The Mikado featuring members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera company performing their patented numbers in their stage-honored style. While not a complete replication of the stage show, the movie offers pleasing entertainment which fans of the musical will undoubtedly want to explore. Some outstanding bonus inclusions complete a nicely produced package.