There’s long been a tendency to be harder on Victor Schertzinger’s 1939 film version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera The Mikado than should be the case. Perhaps because of its authorized status owing to the participation of the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company (the number-one source for productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas) and conductor Geoffrey Toye in charge of translating W.S. Gilbert’s text to the screen — not to mention the presence of legendary Gilbert-and-Sullivan performer Martyn Greene as Ko-Ko. It’s simply that expectations are too high.
Yes, the opera suffers numerous cuts (including the popular, but lyrically troublesome, “As Someday It May Happen”), and, yes, it does bring in Jack Benny Show crooner Kenny Baker to play Nanki-Poo in order to goose the film’s prospects in the U.S. But it’s still the best cinematic or television version of the opera we have. And, truth to tell, even though Baker’s role is unnecessarily expanded in keeping with his semi-star status, he’s quite good in the film — nothing like his stomach-churning turn in the Marx Brothers film At the Circus that same year.
Director Victor Schertzinger — an underrated filmmaker and accomplished tunesmith in his own right — crafted the film in a deliberately artificial, theatrical manner (it all takes place on obvious soundstage sets, making it cinematic via its cutting and camerawork). It’s a thoroughly solid version — radical only its decidedly unauthentic costuming (Ko-Ko’s outfit makes him resemble a large turkey). It beautifully preserves the essence of the work and captures for all time the great Martyn Greene’s signature performance as Ko-Ko, the beleaguered Lord High Executioner faced with the incommodious — and downright impractical — prospect of being ordered to behead himself.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke