My notes on the early Michael Winner movie.
About equal measures of entertainment and excruciation swill about in The Cool Mikado, an early effort from writer-director Michael Winner which can’t be bothered to be a proper update-rewrite of the ‘squaresville’ Gilbert and Sullivan hit. Though John Barry (who appears with his Seven) does decent jazzy musical arrangements of Sullivan’s tunes and Lionel Blair gets to choreograph a twist version of ‘Tit-Willow’, this for the most part just hauls performers in to do unadorned renditions of songs which had worked for eighty-odd years before this was made and still sound pretty good fifty-five-odd years later. Only the Mikado’s ‘Punishment Fit the Crime’ number, as performed by Stubby Kaye, even has extensively rewritten lyrics to poke fun at 1960s ‘evil-livers’ like pimply pop stars, graft-taking DJs and Rackmanesque landlords.
Bland travelogue shots of downtown Tokyo are littered throughout, but the film mostly takes place on cramped studio sets (with a visibly painted Mount Fuji smoking on the backdrop) justified in a Caligariesque turn by having the film narrated on a long-haul flight by Hank Mikado (Kevin Scott) to shut up a talkative fellow passenger (Kaye). In this metafiction, Hank is a US army soldier stationed in Japan who falls for Yum-Yum (Jill Mai Meredith), the intended of gangster Ko-Ko Flintridge (aka ‘the Lord High Executioner’), but has to duck out of an arranged marriage to curvy starlet Katie Shaw (Jacqueline Jones) and appease his judge father Herbert Mikado (Kaye). Into this are dumped comedy routines with popular British acts Mike and Bernie Winters, as two unlikely GIs (Bernie takes pulling funny faces and falling over to heights of not-being-funny usually reserved for drowned kittens and party political broadcasts), and Tommy Cooper, as pattering private eye Pooh-Bah. It’s a lasting truth about comedy that anyone can be funny with good material, but it takes a real talent to be funny with terrible material – the test case usually cited for this is Cooper, who has a rare off-day in a one-scene turn with a slew of ‘take my wife’-type one-liners. Howerd, however, cannot be crushed, even by the worst Michael Winner can stick him with – in fact, he’s so good in the songs that it’s a shame he doesn’t get to do more of them. Once the worst of Bernie Winters is done with and Howerd takes over, the film flickers into something like life as Frankie plays off his krewe of decent stooges (hulking Frank Olegario, ancient Kenji Takaki, tough Dermot Walsh) and shocks even the duffest gag lines to life.
Scott is a ravaged-looking, unappealing hero – to be fair, G&S’s leading man is a total git too – but Meredith (dubbed by Lissa Gray) is winning and Jones (despite dreadful Yank accent) is funny a dim pin-up. Completing the ‘Three Little Maids From School’ act and underused are Yvonne Shima (Dr No) and Tsai Chin (Face of Fu Manchu) – who might be the first Asians cast in any production of The Mikado. In its own way, this is radical – though any possible advance is undermined by Lionel Blair doing an agonising cod-Japanese accent and narrowing his eyes in the background. Naturally, Burt Kwouk has a bit part – and voices several other background characters. At the climax, set in an airport bristling with ‘Come Back Soon – and Bring Money’ and ‘Yankee Go Home’ signs, Dennis Price and Peter Barkworth show up to do a protracted non sequitur about diplomatic bores (‘are you attached to the British consulate?’ ‘not particularly – but it’s a living’) that feels as if it’s been dropped in to pad out the (brief) running time. Among Jones’ conquests are Pete Murray and Ed Bishop. Amazingly busy bit-player Marianne Stone suffers through a joke about being oversteamed working an espresso machine.
The DVD also includes the Winner shorts Girls, Girls, Girls! and It’s Magic.
Watched this last night. Utterly agonizing. Glad I was able to see it (it’s quite hard to find in the States), but is it ever dreadful. Bernie Winters really is that bad, though I didn’t think Howerd was any better.
A thought I had was that a more faithful adaptation, with Howerd as the bloodthirsty Mikado and Kaye as the well-meaning, bumbling Ko-Ko, would’ve been great. Alas.