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Under the Radar DVD of the Week: 'Groucho Marx in the Mikado'

Dennis King Modified: May 15, 2013 at 12:11 pm •  Published: June 11, 2012

This week, the oddest DVD to appear on release lists is:

“Groucho Marx in the Mikado”

It’s not generally known that Groucho Marx, that king of comic chaos, had an absolute passion for the precise, Victorian-era comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. In fact, a self-proclaimed highlight of Groucho’s long career came when he played the role of Ko-Ko in “The Mikado,” a 1960 Bell Telephone Hour TV production due out on DVD for the first time on Tuesday.

Family and friends say that Groucho’s devotion to the British composer-librettist duo’s work (which also includes “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance”) bordered on an obsession, and his uncharacteristic casting in the hour-long TV production “fulfilled a lifelong ambition.”

The 1885 opera, a thinly disguised satire on English bureaucracy, focuses on “cheap tailor” Ko-Ko, who is promoted to the lofty position of Lord High Executioner in the town of Titipu and constructs an elaborate ruse involving the Emperor’s lovesick son and his lovely ward Yum-Yum.

For the Bell Telephone Hour’s 60-minute format (minus time for commercials), the original score had to be tightly condensed by Gilbert and Sullivan expert Martyn Green. The cast studio recording (which differs from the TV soundtrack) has been available on audio since 1960, but this DVD marks the first time the video has been released for public consumption.

For his operatic debut, Groucho was surrounded by a top-flight cast, including Helen Traubel as Katisha, Stanley Holloway as Poo-Bah, British actor Dennis King as The Mikado, Barbara Meister as Yum-Yum, Sharon Randall as Pitti-Sing, and Melinda Marx (Groucho’s 13-year-old daughter) as Peep-Bo.

Since the original color videotape master has been lost, the DVD program is presented in black and white. Extras on the disc include commentary and interviews with cast members and friends of Groucho; cast biographies; scenes of a 1963 Bell Hour production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” and original Bell Telephone commercials.

“Groucho Marx in the Mikado” is not rated and runs 52 minutes. It’s being released by Video Artists Int’l.

- Dennis King

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