THE DVD SHELF: The French Theatrical Epic "Children of Paradise," "Mad Men" and Gilbert & Sullivan & Groucho on TV

By Steven Suskin
21 Oct 2012

Cover art for "The Mikado."
The CD of the 1960 "Bell Telephone Hour" version of Groucho Marx in The Mikado [VAI] has sat upon my shelf for several months, for several reasons: Groucho as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, sounds like a stunt; this was Groucho turning 70, and I generally find his post-1950 acting performances more grating than funny (while enjoying his interviews and game shows); to fit within the Bell Telephone Company's hour, the operetta had to be shoehorned into 52 minutes; the cast album of this production — recorded by Columbia, currently available on CD from DRG — did not leave me aching to see it; and finally, just how interesting can a cut-down 1960 TV version of The Mikado starring Groucho Marx be? Out of a sense of obligation, I finally watched the thing. And I was wrong.

Yes, it is cut down; but I usually find The Mikado overlong, anyway. And this is not just arbitrarily cut by some TV hack; Martyn Green, the renowned Savoyard, adapted and produced it. So it plays pretty well considering the time restraints. The supporting cast offers some welcome performances. Robert Rounseville — who several years earlier created the title role in Candide — makes a charming Nanki-Poo. Stanley Holloway is very much in evidence as Pooh-Bah, and the Katisha of the occasion is an extremely funny Helen Traubel.

For the Mikado they have enlisted Broadway veteran Dennis King, who starred in the 1920s operetta hits Rose-Marie and The Three Musketeers. King and Green appeared together in the ill-fated 1956 musical Shangri-La. Green looks quite fit in his on-camera introduction, belying the fact that six months earlier he was in an elevator accident in a parking garage which resulted in the emergency amputation of his leg on the grimy floor, apparently without anesthesia.

The staging is stylish, clever and pretty funny. True, this is a "Bell Telephone Hour" production, but it looks pretty good. (It was telecast in color, but all that seems to survive is the black & white kinescope from which this release derives.) Special features include the commercials from the original telecast — which are thankfully not permitted to interrupt the operetta — and a new audio commentary from Groucho-expert Dick Cavett, Barbara Meister (who plays Pitti-Sing), and Melinda Marx Leung, who at the age of 13 played Peep-Bo, one of those little maids from school. She comments that it was her father's lifelong dream to play Ko-Ko.

The big question is "how is Groucho?," seemingly the reason for this venture. In a word, he is a delight. He is thoroughly at home in the genre; The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, his early stage musicals, were clearly influenced by G&S, with Groucho as the patter-singing comedian. Here, he doesn't miss a beat or a leer or a gag. He spits out his words with great skill, flits about the scenery like a firefly, takes great advantage of a malfunctioning prop fan (or is it planned)? His courtship scenes with Traubel are perfect, summoning up all those years with Margaret Dumont; and all is won he throws a bit of his Capt. Spalding hornpipe into "There is beauty of the bellow in the blast."

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