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Release Date(s)1939 (March 29, 2011)
Studio(s)Universal (Criterion - Spine #559)
“The Mikado” is usually considered the most successful of the Gilbert and Sullivan collaborations – 14 comic operas that the pair produced between 1871 and 1896. The stories were mainly fashioned as absurdist commentaries on British life and politics, though sometimes with exotic settings such as Japan, the one used in “The Mikado”. In 1939 the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, which performed and promoted the Gilbert and Sullivan works for over a century, for the first and only time granted filming rights to “The Mikado”. The result was a transatlantic effort that utilized American director Victor Schertzinger and singer Kenny Baker along with an otherwise British cast and crew and filming at Pinewood Studios outside London.
Despite some pruning and rearrangement of the story and musical numbers, the flavour of the source material does shine through in this 1939 filmic The Mikado. There is no effort to open up the material as many film versions of stage plays do, rather there seems to have been a conscious effort to convey a theatrical feel to the presentation a decision that works to the absurdist material’s favour. The decision to employ Technicolor turns out to be a crucial one as it allows the film to highlight the fantastic costumes and some exceptional production design by Marcel Vertes.
Criterion has brought the film to Blu-ray in a very appealing full frame transfer (in accord with the original theatrical aspect ratio). Working from a 35mm interpositive as source material, the two most obvious characteristics of the transfer are the colour fidelity and the cleanliness. The colours are not as vivid as the most saturated Technicolor images, but they are bright and capture the rich variety and juxtaposition of colour tones in costuming, scenery, and skin-tones very well. There is modest grain apparent throughout. The only misstep of consequence is some inconsistency in sharpness. The LPCM uncompressed mono sound conveys dialogue and music quite well, but some minor hiss and crackle can still be heard in the background. English SDH subtitling is provided.
Criterion has managed to assembly quite a good suite of supplements, with all visual ones being in HD. Included are video interviews with director Mike Leigh (whose film Topsy Turvy dealt with the original genesis of “The Mikado”) and with Gilbert & Sullivan scholars Josephine Lee and Ralph MacPhail Jr. There is also a deleted song sequence for “I’ve Got a Little List”, four NBC Radio audio excerpts for musical numbers from two modernized versions of “The Mikado” staged on Broadway in 1939, and an 18-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien. An easy recommendation for Gilbert & Sullivan fans. Others may wish to try a rental first.
- Barrie Maxwell