Criterion Sunday 559: The Mikado (1939)

There were two notable Broadway stagings of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta in the year this film was made, The Swing Mikado and The Hot Mikado, both all-Black casts which reimagined the text on a less specific island than Japan. I have no doubt that both would present problems to modern viewers, had they been preserved in anything more than audio excerpts from radio and a few still images, but instead we have this document. It has lavish, Technicolor staging, and I can’t dispute that it looks pretty lovely, rich and deeply saturated colours, flamboyant costumes and a bunch of actors who are largely familiar with the traditions of Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m not a massive fan of these two’s work, though Mike Leigh’s 1999 film about them (Topsy-Turvy) is one I really like, that gets into what it is to make an artistic collaboration and to deal with delivering a consumer-focused product to a popular audience. This, however, is a curio, and not one that exactly meshes with modern tastes. Of course, its Japan is a confected one, based on a vague interest in Japanoiserie and a vague idea about Orientalism, so yes it feels decidedly racist, but you get the sense (perhaps more so from Leigh’s film) that it’s only an affectation, as it’s really about a bunch of white Home Counties English people putting on a play, and on that level it’s probably quite fun. But it is hard, very hard, to watch it and to focus on the staging and the joy of performance, and not on the fact that they are all playing ridiculous Japanese stereotypes. But the colour and the costuming and the sets are lavish.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • One of the extras is a short deleted scene of a song that was excised (“I’ve Got a Little List”), perhaps for its topical political references (to a certain Mr Hitler), or maybe more so for its racial slur in the lyrics, because even in 1939 some things were just a step too far.
  • Surviving audio clips are presented from the two African-American productions of the musical mentioned in my opening sentence above, two songs from each, and though one cannot see them, you immediately get the sense that perhaps each would have made for a fine spectacle and ones far more worth preserving than this.
  • There’s a short, silent film of The Mikado (1926) included, which is obviously missing a key component of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera on which it’s based, but it’s there to give a sense of Charles Ricketts’ new costumes for the Savoy production of the long-running show, which draws more heavily on authentic Japanese costuming. Whether or not that’s the right direction to go for such a ridiculous piece of Orientalism is unclear to me, but the short preserves some little snippets of the D’Oyly Carte company’s performers of the 1920s, and of course those costumes (with a short sequence showing the designer at work, discarded cigarette butts and all).
  • A fascinating extra is a half-hour piece of two academics (Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr.) speaking to this production, as well as to a history of productions of Gilbert and Sullivan, and both make some excellent points, one from a specifically Asian-American perspective, but both with a wealth of knowledge.
  • Mike Leigh gives his opinions too, and he certainly has positive things to say in the 1939 film’s favour, as well as plenty of critiques. Still, it’s interesting to hear a fellow film director’s take on a film production, even if he acknowledges it’s more of a curio now than anything else.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Victor Schertzinger; Writer Geoffrey Toye (based on the opera by W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan); Cinematographers Bernard Knowles and William V. Skall; Starring Kenny Baker, Martyn Green, Sydney Granville, Jean Colin, John Barclay; Length 91 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 31 July 2022.

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