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  Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The Allow Them To Compose Themselves
Year: 1953
Director: Sidney Gilliat
Stars: Robert Morley, Maurice Evans, Eileen Herlie, Martyn Green, Peter Finch, Dinah Sheridan, Isabel Dean, Wilifrid Hyde-White, Muriel Aked, Michael Ripper, Bernadette O'Farrell, Ann Hanslip, Eric Berry, Yvonne Marsh, Lloyd Lamble, Ian Wallace, Richard Warner
Genre: Biopic, MusicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Arthur Sullivan (Maurice Evans) has just presented his latest work with a full choir to the London audience, one of his serious efforts that he hopes will secure his name among the firmament of classic composers, a new master in the English pantheon. However, this is not what sells too many tickets, as his operettas prove far more successful, to his chagrin, though his partner in writing William S. Gilbert (Robert Morley) is perfectly happy with this arrangement, as his often comic lyrics are his forte. But this is playing havoc with Sullivan's relationship with his would-be fiancee, Grace (Dinah Sheridan), who implores him to stick with the serious material lest he lose her hand in marriage for good...

Well, he's better off without her, frankly, but the shadow of Grace looms long over the partnership of the famed operetta creators Gilbert and Sullivan, for the latter is always suffering a nagging sense that he is not operating at his full potential, and those oratorios are really what he should be concentrating on. This state of affairs may be reminiscent of a far more famous film on this subject, Mike Leigh's 1999 favourite Topsy-Turvy which more or less took much the same matters in hand and though it focused on the writing and rehearsals of The Mikado, entertained many of the same concerns that Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat brought up in this earlier biopic. Though this was more a biography in that it took in the lives of both men from the early days to their eventual end.

This work was warmly received at the time, though was regarded as more of a selection of highlights than a more cohesive piece, a reaction only bolstered by the way in which the script (by Gilliat and Leslie Baily, based on Baily's book) chose to dip into the great duo's canon and cherry pick what they wanted to sum up their entire careers. Launder and Gilliat were of course very well known in their day as well, and you can imagine they saw something of their own relationship and renown in the story presented here, making them all the more enthusiastic about producing this. That said, you can well see why Leigh opted to home in on one of the Gilbert and Sullivan classics rather than take the more expansive approach and try to fit in everything, as Leigh's Mikado served as a microcosm for the Victorian lifestyle as well as the artistic experience.

In this case, while it grew sentimental in places, it never really resonated as much as Topsy-Turvy, and neither was it as funny, though Morley in particular was keen to convey a humorous tone to some of his readings and lines, and that made the film slip by with pleasant ease. Yes, the pair had their differences, and a major falling out dissolved their run of hit shows, but the attitude with this was that we should be glad of what we did get rather than wonder what might have been if they had seen eye to eye for longer. The point that many believed Gilbert and Sullivan were frivolous entertainers in their era, including possibly Sullivan, yet it was their music that endured well into the future while other, more "sincere" pieces were forgotten, was an irony the film delighted in, and if there was nothing radical about the way the extracts were delivered, you could understand why they have such devotion around them. As it was, this was a little stuffy, but nicely performed, and there was a genuineness about its desire to pay tribute that was quite disarming.

[Network release this on The British Film brand as a Blu-ray with the US trailer, an image gallery and subtitles as extras.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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