(*homocinematically inclined)

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Reverend's Reviews: Pirates Ship Comes In on DVD

I fell in love with the delightful big-screen adaptation of Gilbert & Sullivan's classic operetta The Pirates of Penzance upon watching it on opening day in 1983. Unfortunately, the movie was not widely seen as the result of a dispute between its releasing studio, Universal Pictures, and major theater chains.

Universal had decided to debut what it thought would be a major, G-rated crowd pleaser with cultural caché as a pay-per-view event on cable TV (at a time when such events were in their infancy) the same day it opened theatrically. Most theater chains didn't like the idea, fearing the simultaneous TV premiere would cut into their profits, and refused to show the film. Subsequently, only a handful of independent movie houses ran it and the film became an undeserved flop.

Available on VHS since shortly after its minimal release, The Pirates of Penzance finally made an unheralded arrival on DVD September 14. While the only extra on the disc is an oddly grainy, black and white theatrical trailer, the film itself has been beautifully transferred.

The Pirates of Penzance (subtitled The Slave of Duty) made its successful stage debut in London in 1879. A century later, theatrical impresario Joseph Papp produced a New York revival in Central Park with a cast headlined by Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, Rex Smith, Estelle Parsons and George Rose. The satiric and somewhat sexed-up interpretation was a smash hit with critics and audiences. Papp joined forces with the late Edward R. Pressman to transfer it to film with nearly all the same players (Parsons was replaced by the great Angela Lansbury).

Director Wilford Leach, who also helmed the Central Park production, utilizes fabulous, highly-stylized soundstage sets, a bold color palette (which absolutely pops on the new DVD) and a decidedly campy approach. Graciela Danielle choreographed the high-energy, frequently acrobatic dances, as she also did for the stage version. The other key members of the film's production team are top-notch: production designer Elliot Scott and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (who would re-team spectacularly the following year on Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and editor Anne V. Coates (an Oscar winner for Lawrence of Arabia).

And then there are the notable performances. Kline, who was making his initial big-screen mark in 1982-83 between this film and striking dramatic turns in Sophie's Choice and The Big Chill, is hilariously over-the-top in his athletic portrayal of the Pirate King. Smith, who has had a bigger career on stage and TV than on film, has never been better vocally or hotter physically than he is here as Frederick, the reluctant pirate apprentice struggling to break free and lead a virtuous life. Ronstadt, in her one and only film role to date, is in great voice and appropriately winsome as Mabel, the virginal object of Frederick's affection. Lansbury, as Frederick's nursemaid-turned-pirate, Ruth; Rose, as the show's famous "Modern Major General"; and the double-jointed Tony Azito as the cowardly Constable are all superb.

Of course, the most critical component of any film based on a Gilbert & Sullivan work is its adaptation of their score. The Pirates of Penzance has likely never sounded so good as it does here, either before the movie or since; kudos to adapter William Elliott and music producer Peter Asher.

I'm so grateful to finally have a widescreen version of the film available for home viewing. Whether you've never seen it or have only viewed faded, pan-and-scan versions on VHS or TV, you owe it to yourself to watch The Pirates of Penzance on DVD ASAP.

Reverend's Rating: A+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.


  1. I had never understood why this fantastic production of this musical hadn't ever been more widely known - what a pity the studios and theatres couldn't sort it out!