Sidney Gilliat (director)
Network on Air (studio)
22 February 2021 (released)
23 February 2021
This sumptuous 1953 ‘bio-pic’ charts the often stormy partnership of Gilbert & Sullivan (who bestowed upon us comic opera masterpieces such as The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance) and their relationship with theatrical impresario and producer Richard D’Oyly Carte – with Robert Morley as librettist W. S. Gilbert and Maurice Evans as composer Arthur Sullivan.
The film begins with a youngish Sullivan performing one of his ‘serious’ works – the cantata ‘The Prodigal Son’ to much applause during a concert in London’s Crystal Palace. Encouraged by his admiring fiancée Grace Marston (Dinah Sheridan) to continue with his serious work, hopes are raised that one day soon he will even marry her though her well-meaning father (Wilfrid Hyde-White) hints that he might fare considerably better should he take up a position as a stockbroker… However, his financial prospects as a musician begin to look on the bright side after his first major hit – the comic opera 'Trial by Jury' - leads to much acclaim, with an appreciative audience to boot. Unfortunately his fiancée does not share the overall enthusiasm and dismisses his composition as trivial and a waste of his musical talent… how wrong that turned out to be! Despite his protests regarding her harsh judgment she dumps him while her father tries to console the devastated young man by letting him know that he probably had a lucky escape – besides, he rather enjoyed ‘Trial by Jury’ and can’t stop humming the songs. Torn between the break-up of his engagement and the lure of putting music to Gilbert's witty lyrics he opts for the latter - this is seen here as the end of Sullivan's romantic life (it could not have been further from the truth) but in the theatrical releases of the early 1950s things were still considerably tame, hence there's a cinematic end to his roving eye.
To soften the blow of his break-up he joins forces with Gilbert (R. Morley) and Richard D'Oyly Carte (Peter Finch) who produced the duo’s operas (later to become known as The Savoy Operas). D'Oyly Carte had the theatre (still standing today) built especially for them. The majority of the film shows mainly extracts from these various operas (mainly overall successes – only ‘Ruddigore’ seems to have initially flopped) and for this we have some of the creme de la creme of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company on hand, with Martyn Green arguably the greatest of all singer/actors to essay Gilbert's 'little men' roles. Here he is cast as George Grossmith the originator of the roles. The only argument is why aren’t we treated to some of the more popular songs like Tit Willow from ‘The Mikado’. Speaking of: whilst Gilbert feels inspired to write The Mikado upon gazing at a Japanese sword hanging on a wall in his study, Sullivan harbors other plans: his good friend, music critic and librettist Joseph Bennett (Lloyd Lamble), writes a cantata based on the poem ‘The Golden Legend’ by Longfellow. However, when he visits Sullivan he realizes that rehearsals for ‘The Mikado’ are in full swing. He tries to coax his friend into finishing the Golden Legend with the promise that if he does so, then Queen Victoria will attend the premiere. Pretending he does just that he quickly resumes work on ‘The Mikado’ when Bennett departs. Eventually both works get finished and premiere. As more operas get written and composed, more quarrels between Gilbert, Sullivan and D’Oyly Carte follow. When Sullivan’s grand opera ‘Ivanhoe’ debuts he presents a bound volume of the romantic opera to an impressed Queen Victoria - who commands a private performance at Windsor Castle though to the composer’s astonishment she chooses ‘The Gondoliers’. At that time Sullivan was already unwell. At the other end of the spectrum Gilbert, in a rotten temper due to his gout, announces that he will no longer write Savoy operas and has a disagreement with D’Oyly Carte over unnecessarily lavish expenses such as a new carpet for the Savoy Theatre – eventually bringing the partnership to an end.
About ten years later D’Oyly Carte and his wife Helen (Eileen Herlie) welcome the 20th century and with it the possibility of a renewed Gilbert & Sullivan partnership. During a rehearsal for ‘The Yeoman of the Guard’ Gilbert runs into his old friend Sullivan – now in a wheelchair. The two former friends make up for lost time (these two needed each other as much as Laurel and Hardy) and plan to take a curtain call together with Carte once the opera premieres – with all three in a wheelchair though when the big night arrives news reaches Gilbert and Carte of Sullivan’s death. The film ends with Gilbert being knighted just as his partner had been many years before.
In truth this lavish biopic was a box office flop and it was quite bold of Launder and Gilliatt to persuade Alexander Korda - the powerful head of London Films - to finance this project (he apparently was no G & S fan anyway). Sadly it never paid off - curious really as the film is well produced and great, 'light hearted' fun. Gilliatt even got Leslie Baily, THE Gilbert and Sullivan authority, to co-write the screenplay with him. A sterling effort all round despite hardly any exteriors (which were not really necessary anyway). Morley and Evans are fine in the leads while a young Peter Finch is a bit wasted as D'Oyly Carte but it's the music that predominates here. There are some nice touches such as the policemen coming to life on 'The Pirates of Penzance' poster as well as some in-jokes for the cognoscenti - all nicely rounded off by BAFTA-winning cinematographer Christopher Challis, lavish design by Oscar winners Hein Heckroth and Vincent Korda plus a soundtrack courtesy of The London Symphony Orchestra . Groucho Marx (who played Ko-Ko in The Mikado) was a great G & S fan and there was a guy who knew about how to make people laugh!
THE STORY OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN is presented on Blu-ray as a HD re-master though Bonus Material only includes US trailer and Image Gallery.