The 1926 D'Oyly Carte Mikado Film

The MikadoDarrell Fancourt
Nanki-PooCharles Goulding
Ko-KoHenry Lytton
Pooh-BahLeo Sheffield
Pish-TushJohn Huntington
Yum-YumElsie Griffin
Pitti-SingAileen Davies
Peep-BoBeatrice Elburn
KatishaBertha Lewis

D'Oyly Carte Opera Company

It is not well known that D'Oyly Carte, in 1926, made a brief promotional film of The Mikado. It was only four minutes long and, of course, was silent. However, it is a remarkable piece of history, preserving some of the best-loved G&S artists at the absolute height of their careers.

Eleanor Dugan told me that, at least in the USA, both sound and color film had been perfected in the movies (although they were not frequently used until a few years later). It's a pity that these technologies were not brought to bear when this film was made.

For copyright reasons, the film is not yet generally available, and perhaps it won't ever be, but the background of it is fascinating nonetheless. Peter Parker provided a detailed account of the film, which I reproduce below:

I formerly possessed an original copy of a 35mm film, made for showing in cinemas, of The Mikado as re-dressed by Charles Rickets in September, 1926. I no longer have the original film. It is with the Theatre Museum in London, to whom I presented it.

The film was made before the introduction of sound to films (at least in the UK). It was also before the introduction of colour cinematography. In order to show off the new costumes and sets, it was coloured by hand on a frame by frame basis, which was by that date an established proceedure. To cut down the very large number of individual frames to be coloured, a stencil process was used. This implied that, for many successive frames where there was little or no movement, the same coloured stencil could be applied, and the viewer did not notice. It also meant a better consistency of colours on screen.

Several years ago, I had this film, which was on Nitrate stock, transferred to a video. Nitrate film stock is highly inflammable, and even to project it in the UK requires a specially licenced and equipped projection suite. I knew that in due course of time the film would deteriorate to a point where it could never be projected. This type of film stock can self-ignite when exposed to air, which was the cause/reason for the development of the modern 'safety' film stock. For longevity, Nitrate film has to be kept refrigerated! Even handling this old film is a dangerous matter, and special precautions have to be taken.

At that time, I knew of only one copy of this film, mine, and as any copies would each have had to be hand coloured, I did not think there would be many others. However, a search at The British Film Institute archives showed that they had two other copies. They were stored away in their special vaults for keeping such old material, and the BFI were unwilling to get their copies out of storage to check if there were any differences because of the costs and trouble involved.

In 1990 BFI had arranged to have, for a period, showings at the National Film Theatre in London of historical (in the film sense) films. Among the films listed to be shown was the 1939 Mikado. This was, I am told, the first Technicolor full length feature film to be made in UK. The BFI had arranged to have a brand new print made (on safety film stock) of the 1939 Mikado and were going to show it for two days only at NFT. Unnanounced, they then decided to show their copy of the 1926 Mikado before the main feature. This news 'leaked' out on the day before the first showing, and a number (about 10 of us) of G&S 'fanatics' booked seats. (The whole audience numbered less than 30).

About 10 minutes before the film was due to start, the projectionist decided that the copy of the 1926 film was not safe to project, and he refused to show it. I pointed out that it was rather late in the day to arrive at this decision, and that in any case they knew I had a video copy which could be used, if only they had asked. The 1939 film was shown that night, therefore, without any preview of the 1926 film.

On the following day, I took my video to BFI headquarters, and they arranged to show me the copy of the film that was unsafe to project. They used a viewer in a specially constructed booth on the roof of the building, so scared is everyone of Nitrate film.

What then emerged was that their film was not quite identical to my copy, in that it had no cast list at the start, and the last few frames were cut short. However, the outcome was that BFI arranged to show my video copy at NFT that night in front of the 1939 Mikado. Knowing that I had a unique piece of history, I took reasonable care to ensure that no copy was made, but I have no proof.

I then discovered a further video copy of this film, which was again slightly different. This belonged to Mahala Menzies, who is the daughter of Ivan Menzies and Elsie Griffin. She had discovered an original copy of the film among her mother's possessions when she died and did not know what it was. Mahala is not a particular G&S fan. She took this film to a professional film studio, who recognised Nitrate stock which she was calmly carrying about with her. They immediately made her a video copy. I have not been able to discover what they did with the film; it was most likely then destroyed. This copy was evidently not transferred to video using a 'flying spot' scanner, as was my copy, and it is therefore not as stable when shown on a VCR. However, it does contain the cast list and the production company's logo, which none of the other three so far traceable copies have.

The credits mistakenly give the Company name as "D'Oyley [sic] Carte." It is my belief that the reason why the BFI copies do not have a cast list is because Rupert D'Oyly Carte did not wish to see his name spelled wrongly on public screens in cinemas. It is likely that my copy was never actually professionally projected before I had the transfer made. I do not know if Elsie Griffin's copy was ever used. One can speculate if any of the other artists were given copies, and if so what happened to them?

The film runs for about four minutes only. It depicts a series of very short scenes. One must remember that it was made to show off the new costumes and scenery. Each scene has a title. (Subtitling was not 'in vogue', or maybe was not technically achievable then.) The scenes are:

  • "If you want to know who we are"
  • "Three little maids from school are we"
  • "Your revels cease"
  • "Braid the raven hair"
  • Entrance of the Mikado with Katisha
  • "The flowers that bloom in the spring
  • Finally, shots of Charles Rickets and costume designs

The film would appear to have been made live on stage at the Princess Theatre in the first week or thereabouts of September, 1926, as there were cast changes very soon after. My guess is that it was shot at a dress rehearsal in order to get it to the cinemas as close to the actual opening as possible.

Peter indicated that copyright in the film was held by a Gaumont Film Company. He tried, without success, to identify the successors to Gaumont. The film is still technically under copyright and could not be legally duplicated.