The Groucho Marx - Mikado
Everyone knows who Julius “Groucho” Marx is. Sarcasm and mayhem are often attached to his name, whether with his brothers, through the “You Bet Your Life” television show, movies, or books. The little man, hunched over with the mustache and cigar are iconic. Period. Everyone has a favorite “Groucho” line. Mine coincides with the Beatles 1964 appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, at a plush dinner party, a “meet and greet” for the rich and famous in Beverly Hills with the trending phenomena of the moment. Television interviewers collared attendees, as they went into the gated grounds when along comes “Groucho.” They gush on and on about how excited he must be to get close to the Four Moptops, and how it will impact his life forever. “No. I came for the food,” he said.
Some of the more interesting stories come from his later years, as related by raconteurs, Dick Cavett and Paul Krassner. It seemed that anyone visiting his home would be subjected to endless recorded playbacks of Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas, whichever one happened to catch his ear for the moment. Marx loved anything with a high literary content, witnessed by his own verbal barrages and writings, and the musicals offered brilliant wordplay that meshed with his own fascination of the English language.
What makes this so interesting was that Marx got to fulfill a lifelong dream in playing Ko-Ko, opposite Helen Traubel, in a 1960 Bell Telephone Hour color adaptation. In the 1950s-60s, the Bell System sponsored a now-legendary series of musical programs on NBC, among which was this condensed version of The Mikado, directed and adapted by Martyn Green.The production, long considered a lost television relic, took on a life of its own over the decades. It was held in the clutches of certain collectors and circulated in poor quality videotape transfers, with holes in the signal creating a snowy effect from poor tracking. It was rumored that the New York Museum of Modern Art held a copy in their own holdings but it was never confirmed. The poor quality versions were equally as hard to find, until VAI stepped into the picture, so to speak. They had been working with Marx Estate, found legal entanglements to sort though, and yet, kept plodding along.
The result was a 2012 release of the 60-minute television production in black and white (the color broadcast has yet to be found) with nearly 46 minutes of extra supplements. Marx’s performance was fairly straight-forward, due to the comic nature of the character, but he still tosses in asides that are pure “Groucho,” such as when he is interrupted in his thoughts by another character, “What’s the matter? Can’t you see I’m busy soliloquizing?” Watching this production, nearly 50 years after it first aired, almost makes you question the sanity of your parents and broadcasters concerning entertainment. In 1885, when it was first performed, sensibilities were a little different. Marx is the main draw here, and the restoration of the original source materials is stunning for what it is…a beautiful transfer.
And for the story itself? A quick synopsis:Nanki-Poo, the son of the royal mikado, arrives in Titipu disguised as a peasant and looking for Yum-Yum. Without telling the truth about who he is, Nanki-Poo explains that several months earlier he had fallen in love with Yum-Yum; however she was already betrothed to Ko-Ko, a cheap tailor, and he saw that his suit was hopeless. However, he has since learned that Ko-Ko has been condemned to death for flirting; and he has come to find Yum-Yum, his true love.
Nanki-Poo’s high hopes are dashed once more when Pish-Tush, a noble lord, informs him that Ko-Ko was reprieved and raised to the rank of lord high executioner. Pooh-Bah, first lord of the treasury, lord chief justice, commander-in-chief, etc., enters next, and he also holds out no hope for Nanki-Poo. Then Ko-Ko himself enters, ready to execute “plenty of people whose loss will be a distinct gain to society at large.”
Next enters Yum-Yum, who reluctantly allows Ko-Ko to kiss her, even though she doesn’t love him; however, she catches sight of Nanki-Poo and rushes over to him. Nanki-Poo, expecting an angry reaction from Ko-Ko, blurts out that he loves Yum-Yum. “Anger!” responds Ko-Ko. “Not a bit, my boy. Why, I love her myself.”
The crowd departs, and Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo are left alone. He confides to her that he is really the son of the mikado, but, ordered by his father to marry Katisha, an elderly lady of the court, he has fled. However, they realize the hopelessness of their situation—and, sadly, they part.
Ko-Ko, Pooh-Bah, and Pish-Tush enter, bearing a letter from the mikado which complains that no executions have taken place in Titipu for a year and, unless somebody is beheaded within the month, Titipu will be reduced to a mere village.
Nanki-Poo decides that his only option is to commit suicide, but Ko-Ko persuades Nanki Poo to let him behead him instead. To clinch the deal, Ko-Ko even agrees to let Nanki-Poo marry Yum-Yum, providing he agrees to be executed in one month.
As wedding preparations progress, Ko-Ko arrives with bad news: he has learned that the law dictates that when a man is beheaded, his wife must be buried alive. Yum-Yum, while not wishing to appear selfish, points out that this revelation does change things. In despair, Nanki-Poo pulls out a dagger and threatens to kill himself if Ko-Ko doesn’t agree to behead him now. However, Ko-Ko can’t; he can’t kill anything, not even a fly. Then, just before the mikado arrives, they come up with a solution: Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum will be married and will go into hiding, while everyone pretends that the execution has taken place.
When the mikado and Katisha arrive, he is pleased that an execution has taken place, but admits that his real purpose in visiting is to find his son. Katisha spots the name on the execution certificate—Nanki-Poo!—and the mikado, while agreeing that a mistake has certainly been made, says that killing the royal heir involves a horrible death. Nanki-Poo surreptitiously suggests that Ko-Ko marry Katisha; that way Nanki-Poo can come back to life, no one will be killed, and Katisha will be off his back. Ko-Ko, while unenthusiastic, agrees. All are happy, except the mikado, who says that now no one has been executed. Ko-Ko comes up with the explanation: “When your majesty says, ‘let a thing be done,’ it’s as good as done—practically is done—because your majesty’s word is law.” The mikado is satisfied, and everyone happily sings the finale.
There, and don’t say we didn’t tell you.
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