A painter may paint a picture, a composer may write a beautiful melody for solo piano, but in the world of the theater (and here I count motion pictures as well), one person may have a vision, but production is a collaborative art. W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan worked together on a total of 14 comic operas, of which “The Mikado” is far and away the most popular, and arguably the best. Two new releases from the Criterion Collection highlight the work of Gilbert and Sullivan in different ways. The 1939 screen adaptation of “The Mikado” is now on DVD and new to Blu-ray, and British director Mike Leigh’s “Topsy-Turvy” also gets a deluxe DVD and Blu-ray treatment. That film dramatizes the writing, production, and premiere of “The Mikado.”
Victor Schertzinger, who is not well-known today, was probably just the right choice to direct the first screen adaptation of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. He was a prolific director, screenwriter, and composer. His score for “One Night of Love” (1934) won the very first ever Best Original Score Academy Award. Not a very flashy fellow, he takes few opportunities to utilize the technique of film to expand upon the opera, though he knows what to cut for dramatic effect. And as scholar Ralph MacPhail Jr. notes on the Criterion disc, he was likely under great pressure to stay as close to the source material as possible.
For those already familiar with “The Mikado,” there are a few changes. Songs are missing, Yum-Yum’s solo, “The Sun and I,” has been given to Nanki-Poo to sing, and perhaps strangest of all, there is a short prologue that sets up the plot before it begins.
But if you’re not one of the many Gilbert and Sullivan admirers that has memorized every line, gag, and note from the operettas, you’re unlikely to know any difference. “The Mikado” takes place in a fantasy world of Japan that makes EPCOT Center look authentic. The film begins as young Nanki-Poo is ordered by the Mikado to marry the overbearing Katisha (Constance Willis). Instead, Nanki-Poo flees to the village of Titipu, where he disguises himself as a street musician (“A wand’ring minstrel I”) while looking for his beloved, Yum-Yum. Nanki-Poo learns that Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, has been holding Yum-Yum as his ward, but that he has also been sentenced to death himself for flirting, which the Mikado has deemed a capital offense. Ko-Ko arranges a deal with Nanki-Poo that will allow the young man to marry Yum-Yum for a month, but must take Ko-Ko’s place under the executioner’s sword. Soon they’re all in a pickle (“Here’s a how-de-do”), as they learn that when a married man is beheaded for flirting, his wife is to be buried alive. Fearing that death awaits them all, they fake Nanki-Poo’s death, only to have to explain to the Mikado and Katisha what has happened when the two show up in town. Now, as I write this, I fear two things: 1. That I am giving away the entire plot, and 2. That what I have written is nearly incomprehensible. So never mind. “The Mikado” has to be seen to be understood and enjoyed. Never has such a jolly mess been made of death and parliamentary shenanigans.
I implied earlier that the artistic choices Schertzinger made in bringing “The Mikado” to the screen are not that bold, and that’s true. The Technicolor palette mostly consists of pastel hues, not the bright color choices that Hollywood -- especially Warner Bros. -- was using in the late 1930s. The chorus, freed from the stage of the Savoy Theatre, roams about more freely, yet still there’s a curious “stagey” feel to the film. Martin Green and Sydney Granville were at the height of their comic powers as members of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and were employed to recreate their stage roles for this film. Although both are very funny, it’s Granville, as Poo-Bah, who plays best to the camera, even better than the American ringer that had supposedly been brought in to draw audiences, Kenny Baker (as Nanki-Poo; he was reportedly nicknamed “Yankee-Poo” by some cast members). Despite much of the commercial advertising of the time pushing the Nanki-Poo/Yum-Yum romance, “The Mikado” belongs to Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah, and the lovers are quietly forgotten.
The DVD/Blu-ray release of “The Mikado” from Criterion includes several special features that enrich one’s experience of the film and the opera. Mike Leigh, whose film “Topsy-Turvy” recounts the original D’Oyly Carte production, offers his thoughts on the opera. And scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr. speak at length on the film, the history of “The Mikado,” and its comparison to what Japan was really like (answer: not much).
It’s hard to explain the hold that this opera had on popular culture at one point, but Gilbert and Sullivan tapped into a fascination for all things Eastern when they wrote the work. MacPhail explains how “The Mikado” was used to sell everything from lampshades to soap in the 1880s, and even into the late ‘30s, when the film was produced, this opera, and its songs, were being interpreted on stage in a myriad of different ways. The disc includes four songs from the jazzed up productions, “The Swing Mikado” and “The Hot Mikado,” featuring Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson. Years later, you can still point to phrases and words from the opera that have entered our lexicon, including “Poo-bah,” “a short sharp shock,” and “let the punishment fit the crime.”
By setting their opera in exotic Japan, Gilbert and Sullivan were able to satirize the English establishment of the day, and the jokes still hold up. When Poo-bah proposes to pay himself off, holding basically every official title of Titipu, I laughed, recognizing any number of back room deals I’ve read about in our local paper.
British director Mike Leigh, known for contemporary chamber dramas, was looking for a way to tell a story about “what we do,” he says, referring to the world of film and the theater. To do so, he turned to the famous partnership between lyricist W. S. Gilbert and composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Leigh says on the commentary track that accompanies “Topsy-Turvy” on DVD and Blu-ray that he was amazed by how much blood and sweat they poured in to something that was so trivial as their 14 operettas, that were among the most popular works of their day. But of course they’re not entirely trivial; as mentioned above, Gilbert and Sullivan used their fanciful settings to satirize and mock the establishment.
“Topsy-Turvy” opens in 1884, as “Princess Ida” is opening what would be an unfortunately short run on the stage of the Savoy Theatre in London. Richard D’Oyly Carte pulled the production after nine months, put up a revival of “The Sorcerer,” and asked for a new work from Gilbert and Sullivan. Upon delivery of Gilbert’s libretto, Sullivan, who had been itching to move into the more serious world of grand opera, rejects Gilbert’s story as too derivative, and says the partnership is over. The two men are an odd pair, anyhow; Gilbert (Jim Broadbent) is stuffy and uptight, and Sullivan (Allan Corduner) is a man about town, fond of the ladies and hobnobbing with the very society patrons their operas often poke fun at.
The story goes that Gilbert was inspired to write “The Mikado” after nearly being knocked on the head by a Japanese sword that dropped from above a door jam at his home. Although that fanciful telling isn’t true, it makes for good theater, and Leigh uses the occasion to jump into Gilbert’s mind. As actor Jim Broadbent looks straight into the camera, a sly smile comes across his face, and in a terrific flash-forward, a fully-staged number from “The Mikado” flourishes on screen. Sullivan loves the plot, and the opera is back on.
It isn’t often that the central conflict in a film is resolved halfway through. But for the majority of “Topsy-Turvy,” we’re left not to wonder about whether the show will go on at all, but to observe the manner in which it all comes together. Leigh employs a cast of some 80 actors in his film, and I’ll be darned if each person doesn’t have a memorable scene. There’s Andy Serkis (Gollum from “The Lord of the Rings”) as the silly-walking choreographer John D’Auban, Ron Cook as the cool and composed D’Oyly Carte, and Wendy Nottingham as his assistant Helen, who displays an astonishing business acumen. In one of my favorite scenes, Jonathan Aris, as the costumer Mr. Wilhelm, and Kevin McKidd, as cast member Durward Lely, get in a row over the “indecent” length of the play’s costumes. And that’s the only scene Aris is in! Yet still his character is as memorable to me as any of the film’s leads.
Perhaps that is only natural, though; Leigh’s method of working begins without a script. The actors are all under contract, and develop their characters with Leigh first through research and improvisation, so that by the time they’re shooting film, they live and breathe their roles.
The film ends not with the triumph of "The Mikado," but with an extended sigh, as Gilbert and Sullivan reflect on their past and future, as individuals and partners. Finally, Shirley Henderson, singing as Leonora Braham/Yum-Yum, closes the film with a rendition of "The Sun and I."
François Truffaut once said that movies should express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of it. In the case of “Topsy-Turvy,” agony may be too strong a word. An artist's life can be a lonely and melancholy one, even as in the midst of public adulation. And it's hard work. Agony or joy? Perhaps it’s a little of both at the same time.
TOPSY-TURVY on BLU-RAY & DVD
“Topsy-Turvy” has been released on DVD once before by Universal Studios; the trailers, commentary track, and 1999 featurette on the making of the film have all been ported over from that previous edition. What’s new this time is the addition of a handful of extended scenes from the film presented in raw, unpolished form, and a brilliant conversation on camera between Leigh and his musical director, Gary Yershon. The two discuss the making of the film, and for fans of Gilbert and Sullivan, they talk about the history of the two men’s partnership, what makes the music work, and their favorite elements from “The Mikado.”
Also included on the disc is a short film, “A Sense of History,” directed by Leigh, and written by and starring Jim Broadbent. Broadbent plays the 23rd Earl of Leete, taking viewers on a first-person tour of his estate. What begins as a dry historical tale slowly becomes more and more outrageous, until the Earl is wading into deep water, quite hilariously revealing where the all bones are buried on his property.
“Topsy-Turvy” itself looks terrific in the high-definition Blu-ray format. Leigh’s staging of scenes from “The Mikado” uses terrifically bright colors, providing a clear delineation of the world of the stage from its sweaty and hazy backdrop. No wonder the film won two Academy Awards, for its costumes and makeup.
The film makes a wonderful companion to “The Mikado” on DVD or Blu-ray, both of which are recommended.