Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado, with Groucho Marx (1960/2012)

by | Jul 21, 2012 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Gilbert & Sullivan: The Mikado, with Groucho Marx (1960/2012)
Bell Telephone Hour Adaptation
Performers: Groucho Marx – Ko-Ko; Helen Traubel – Katisha; Stanley Holloway – Poh-Bah; Dennis King – The Mikado; Robert Rounseville – Nanki-Poo; Bell Telephone Hour Orch.; Norman Luboff Choir; Donald Voorhees, cond.
Video: 4:3 B&W
Audio: PCM mono
Studio: Bell Telephone Hour/Video Artists International 4554 [6/19/12]
Extras: “The Mikado Revisited” – 27:00 audio feature with Dick Cavett, Melinda Marx Leung & others; Commercials from the 1960 telecast; Martyn Green in scenes from H.M.S. Pinafore (1963)
Length: 52 minutes; Extras: 46 minutes
Rating: ****

At first I thought this was just one of the many historic videos which VAI has in their library—formerly on VHS tape and now transferred to DVD. But then I saw the street date and realized that after 52 years this terrific telecast is finally being made available on DVD. There has been a stereo CD available of the soundtrack for some years, though with some different performers than this DVD, but this is the first time the shortened and adapted Bell Telephone Hour production  has been released. Unfortunately, the early videotapes of the telecast in color could not be located, so the DVD is only in black & white. The condensed adaptation is, however, very well done and the casting is amazing. In addition to Helen Traubel (with whom Groucho acted like he had in the Marx Bros. movies with Margaret Dumont), the wonderful British comic actor Stanley Holloway, there was even Marx’s 13-year-old daughter. Both Groucho and Traubel were 70 when this telecast aired. Robert Rounseville is first rate in the tenor role of Nanki-Poo, “the wandering minstrel.”
Groucho plays Ko-Ko, The Lord High Executioner, and it turns out Groucho was a lifelong Gilbert & Sullivan aficionado and had always yearned to play that role in The Mikado. On April 29, 1960 he got his chance. The production was directed by Martyn Green, an authority on Gilbert & Sullivan and much revered by Groucho.  He does stand out as Groucho, of course, and his vocal style—however funny—is not exactly that of Gilbert & Sullivan, but it’s still a kick and half. The B&W is a tad fuzzy and it‘s not in color, but we’re lucky to have it at all. Considering it was not being mounted by an experienced G&S company and the huge cameras they had to maneuver at the time, it went fairly smoothly. I don’t know if they were able to edit at all at this time; Groucho does make one slight error at one point, but it’s not bad.
The extras are most interesting. There is a nearly half-hour audio piece consisting mostly of separate phone interviews made just after the telecast, involving Dick Cavett, a good friend of Groucho’s. The interviews are accompanied by some stills from the performance. Then all the commercials which ran the 52-minute production up to the full 59 or 60 minutes are included in the extras; they relate either to music or to Japan. Finally, there is a 12-minute excerpt in color of Martyn Green in a Pinafore telecast of 1963.
—John Sunier

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