Gilbert and Sullivan
At the Exeter
Much better pictures than Gilbert and Sullivan have been made, but none has had so varied and fascinating a score. That is, if you like Gilbert and Sullivan. If not, there's little use in going to the Exeter for a while, because the cultists have taken over, foot-tapping and head-nodding in time to the jounce melodies. A happy smile of delighted recognition is on their faces, and their lips move--not always silently--in accompaniment.
The plot has an immense sallowness, exceeded only by the banality of much of the dialogue. And yet authors Sidney Gilliat and Leslie Bailey rise sometimes to Gilbertian heights of whimsy. ("My dear," coss Gilbert to his wife, "how does it feel to be married to a transcendent genius?") Beginning with their Trial By Jury success and ending with Gilbert's elevation to knighthood after Sullivan's death, the film neatly skirts the high points of the duo's joint career. Instead, it brings to bear the full force of superficial analysis on the dissension that had them taking bows from opposite sides of the stage. Gilliat and Bailey astutely conclude that the famous carpet dispute was only symptomatic of deeper trouble. Instead, they put the blame on Sullivan's wish that people think of the firm as Sullivan and Gilbert, custom and the alphabet notwithstanding. Tied in with Sullivan's attempt to "shine in a high esthetic line as a man of culture rare" via oratories and a grand opera, this business takes up too much time.
But if I sound bitter it is because may familiar at the Shrine of Savoy begrudges all time taken from the libretto and score. Even a biographical version by the pair themselves wouldn't be well received under the circumstances--unless, of course, it was in the form of a G & S operetta.
But despite the script difficulties the acting is fine. Robert Morley as Gilbert and Maurice Evans as his partner bring a gusto and talent to their roles that almost cover up the inadequacies of what they are saying. Martyn Green, mostly singing, is the best Grossmith since Grossmith.
It's not the acting, though, that is the show's real charm, btu the frequent excerpts from the operettas. Tastefully staged, expertly sung, and only seldom edited for length, this vignette version of Gilbert and Sullivan is tantalizing. Mixed with inner thanks for the privilege of seeing a trifling number of songs well done, there will rankle in each G & S fan's heart an anger that there is not more.