In 1884, after the press made mincemeat of Gilbert and Sullivan's opera Princess Ida, Arthur Sullivan wrote to W.S. Gilbert to say their collaboration was over. He wanted to write serious music. "I have come to the end of my tether - the end of my capability in that class of piece."
But he was really saying something else. Like illustrator John Tenniel refusing a decade earlier to illustrate a chapter about a bewigged wasp for Lewis Carroll's sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Sullivan simply wasn't interested in Gilbert's proposed plot about a lozenge that could turn people into characters they were posing as. So, since Japanese art and culture were all the rage in London at the time, Gilbert offered a comic libretto about love, execution and authoritarian rule in Japan.
Sullivan said he would "gladly undertake to set" the result to music. The Mikado took Britain and the world by storm. Beyond the marvellous songs, the imperious character of Pooh-Bah gave posterity a word, pooh-bah, for a bureaucrat wielding enormous influence.
Two related films are out on DVD and Blu-ray this week on the Criterion label. Writer-director Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy (1999), starring Jim Broadbent as Gilbert and Allan Corduner as Sullivan, spends the first half on Sullivan's balking and the second half on the creation of The Mikado, with historically accurate staging.
Leigh, though better known for his contemporary social dramas, brings to life the world of the 1880s - the language, the social rituals, the drug-taking, the sexual hypocrisy, the casual racism - and balances the frivolity with a serious sense of the toll this life can take. Bonuses include A Sense of History, an excellent 26-minute film from 1992 directed by Leigh and starring Broadbent, who also wrote the piece, as an earl with secrets to die for.
The second release is The Mikado itself, a 1939 Technicolor film shot in London by a Hollywood director and a U.S. lead actor (popular crooner Kenny Baker) but otherwise populated with actors from the D'Oyly Carte company, famous for staging Gilbert and Sullivan's operas at London's Savoy Theatre.
Director Victor Schertzinger, who went on to direct the first two Road movies with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, reordered the opera and chopped much-loved songs to make the movie fit into 90 minutes rather than the 2 hours 45 minutes (counting encores) common on the stage. One of the more famous numbers, I've Got a Little List, was cut in part because an updated line referred disparagingly to Neville Chamberlain's appeasement of Adolf Hitler and because one line used the N-word (did I mention casual racism?). It appears as a bonus feature.
Those unfamiliar with the work will be taken aback by the Mikado's cruelty. Like Carroll's Red Queen, he is determined that Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, should lop off someone's head. In the plot's machinations - Ko-Ko is set to marry Yum-Yum, who has fallen in love with Nanki-Poo (the disguised son of the Mikado), who may agree to be beheaded if he can first spend time with Yum-Yum - Ko-Ko spends much of his time with the multitasking Pooh-Bah seeking ways not to have to chop his own head off.
The film looks gorgeous, a confection of rich colour. The sound, though benefiting from Criterion's removal of hiss and crackles, is at times surprisingly tinny for a film made as far into the sound era as 1939. Despite that, and excisions that will drive Mikado devotees up the wall, it is well worth seeing for the playing of such D'Oyly Carte veterans as Martyn Green (as Ko-Ko) and Sydney Granville, whose Pooh-Bah steals the show with a plummy yet subtle performance that recalls the work of actor Alastair Sim. And there's not a lozenge in sight.
ALSO NEW THIS WEEK
Black Swan (2010) Natalie Portman won her best-actress Oscar for her turn as a ballerina driven to madness by the demands of ballet, a theme familiar from 1948's The Red Shoes. Note: Breaking mirrors really does bring bad luck. In a 48-minute making-of bonus, director Darren Aronofsky says he asked dancer Julie Kent of the American Ballet Theatre about the Swan Queen in the ballet Swan Lake, and was told that she was "kind of half-human, half-swan. And that immediately made me realize, oh, this is a were-swan movie. I started to get really excited."
Fair Game (2010) In this fact-based tale, a U.S. CIA operative (Naomi Watts) is exposed by her own government after her husband (Sean Penn) questions the Bush administration's pretext for invading Iraq. The real Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson sit for a DVD commentary, with some lulls and repetitions, observing where the film got things right or wrong. Plame says her one wish is that the opening music could have been the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter, a song she listened to a lot at the time. "But I think that cost way too much money."
Tangled (2010) This enjoyable computer-animated Disney take on Rapunzel keeps the tower and the woman with long hair (voiced by Mandy Moore), but the Brothers Grimm wouldn't recognize most of it. Supervising animator Glen Keane says it was tough to design Rapunzel's love interest (Zachary Levi), a thief. "You easily could go into way too macho, you don't like the guy. He could be too pretty-boy, you don't like the guy." Women in the studio were asked to assess hundreds of sketches and are briefly shown offering their comments ("no droopy eyes").