The Pirates Of Penzance

1982 (Joseph Papp) Film


Review by Emma Shane

© 2002


If you think Gilbert & Sullivan is about a lot of stuffy aging singers performing singing in what Ethel Merman termed “Concert English”, where you cannot understand the lyrics, think again, this is a film to change that perception. It a wonderful introduction to G&S for people who like musicals but don’t think G&S is their cup of tea.


The film opens with the overture played over the image of a theatre, the real Savoy Theatre itself, then cuts to a picture postcard of Penzance,nt:36.0pt'>Thinking they must be the first human beings to set foot in this secluded spot, the girls decide “why don’t we take off our shoes and stockings and paddle”. They have just started to do so, the camera does a close-up that seems to focus on Edith’s right leg, where that young lady, having removed her boot, is just rolling off her stocking; when Frederick feels duty bound to reveal that their actions will not be unobserved. They seem shocked to find a man there, dressed as a pirate, and hastily get to their feet; we observe several of them, in particular Louise Gold and Tilly Vosburgh, trying to hurriedly both hop back and put their stockings and boots back on at the same time. All the girls wear the same type of white laced up boots, with slight heels. Frederick explains his situation and asks for their help Is There Not One Maiden Fair? As a group the girls retreat away from him, singing that there isn’t one maiden there. Edith, Louise Gold, looks a little menacing, brandishing her fan in her strong left hand, and miming leading the group. Judging by Alexandra Korey’s singing I get the impression Edith is actually meant to be leading her sisters at this point (such is Louise Gold’s presonce, even when not actually singing, that she sometimes appears to lead a group even when it is unclear as to whether her character is meant to). Although the Broadway chorus and in particular Alexandra Korey as Edith sing extremely well, and although the combination of Alexandra Korey’s singing and Louise Gold’s miming went well together; I really can’t help wishing that the British chorus had done their own singing, if only because it seems rather a waste of such a fine a singing-actress as Louise Gold.

All the girls are upset by Frederick’s plight, Tilly Vosburgh distinguishes herself, sitting on a tree stump with tears running down her face, the others are soon similarly effected. They divide into two bunches of four, Louise Gold, needless to say, with her ability to communicate her character’s emotions to her audience just with one look, cannot help but be the focal point in her group. Suddenly, they hear another voice; it’s their oldest sister, Mabel, Linda Ronstadt. She is dressed differently to the other girls; She is wearing a bonnet whereas they all wear hats, and she has on black stockings and boots, although her boots, like theirs, have slight heels. She will take Frederick, Take Any Heart Take Mine. Linda Rondstadt has a fine voice; she must surely have had some operatic training to be able to sing like that. Her sisters are relieved, now Frederick can take Mabel’s heart, he won’t take theirs, so they joyfully back her. One particularly notices the two girls at the back of the group whose enthusiasm seems to add something extra, they are: small Tilly Vosburgh, who is standing on a hilly bit of ground, and tall Louise Gold. At one moving moment towards the end of the lovers’ song, the chorus are clearly supposed to be still, but somehow one girl, Edith, cannot help but move ever so slightly. The number ends in style with everyone in poses. I particularly noticed Louise Gold magnificently turning and raising her left-hand skywards and bringing her right hand across her body to follow it out on the level.


The Pirates come ashore, and find the maidens, and there follows a hilarious scene, where they restrain the girls, who are trying to run away, so that the Pirate King can kiss them. Two of the girls, Edith (tall Louise Gold) and Kate (Teresa Codling), are restrained by three pirates each, the others by one or more often two. The trio holding Louise Gold have lifted her up and her holding her lengthways across them, once The Pirate King has kissed her they all fall down in a heap. However, Frederick does manage to prevent his Mabel from being kissed. The Pirates plan to carry off the girls over the water, against their will, and despite them pointing out that they are all wards of the chancery and father is a Major General. At this Major General Stanley enters, there is a bit of The Pirate King song’s music, which everyone joins in with, but it is soon switched to I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major General. There cannot be many songs that talk about Integral Calculus, and, Pythagorus’s theorem (the square on the hypotenuse), but then W.S. Gilbert had a degree in Mathematics from Kings College London, and to gain such a qualification one is required to be teaming with a lot of news about such things as Binomial Theorem. George Rose sang the song very well, and managed to handle the patter very effectively. The chorus did not have much to do, the girls stood their holding their breath at the appropriate moments in the song, but backed him at some points, and here perhaps one might appreciate the dubbing, since for at least one of them (who can really sing) fast tempo patter songs is not her strong point, but then again the chorus spend most of the number reacting with their bodies rather than singing, so it probably wouldn’t have mattered. The girls stand in two rows; Louise Gold is on the far right-hand side (audience way round) of the back row, with Tilly Vosburgh in front of her, Tilly got rather overshadowed.

                Major General Stanley enquires as to what is going on. It is Edith who strides up to him and explains that the men are The Pirates Of Penzance, and it is Mabel who introduces Frederick. The chorus’s singing was dubbed, and I have been told (by someone who should know) that he thinks the spoken bits were also dubbed.

                To get out of handing his daughters over to the pirates Major General Stanley pretends to be an Orphan, an excuse for some delightful word-play acted out by George Rose and Kevin Kline on Orphan and Often. Throughout the scene alert Louise Gold, naturally, tried to convey some of the drama of the situation to the audience using her eyes and her wide smile, in a way that works well on the screen. There was, however, one bit during a speech of Kevin Kline’s where everyone was practically still, or at least they should have been, where looking carefully I think Louise Gold is moving very very slightly. The final bit where The Pirate King knelt, a few of the chorus, including, rather noticeably Edith, also knelt. The scene ended with everybody enthusiastically dancing around all over the place, and doing it rather well. It’s nicely choreographed.


By the next scene, night has fallen; the girls come out of Tremorden Castle in their night attire (which without their sashes is not as flattering), carrying candles. All of them wear nightcaps and have their hair in suitable style for bed. Linda Ronstadt’s black hair is no longer up, but in a plait down her back. While Louise Gold’s chestnut tresses are no longer loose but tied into two bunches. They find Papa moping in the mausoleum, racked with guilt for having told an untruth, he would consider turning himself over to the Pirates. The girls cluster round trying to comfort him. One cannot help but notice how Louise Gold uses her facial expressions to convey what all the girls are feeling. Frederick turns up in civilian garb and Mabel asks him to cheer up her father. This was quite amusing, since the way she said it first he could not comprehend her. Both Rex Smith and Linda Ronstadt speak with distinctly American accents. 

                Frederick introduces the police, who are going to help him hunt down the pirates, Tarantura.a very comical song, hilariously danced by the policemen, at one point an overhead camera gives a brief element of Busby Berkley. The girls can’t help but join in, mostly dancing on the path beside the fountain. Mabel stands by the Sergeant sending them on their way. Her sisters confer, and presently Edith strides down and does a rather neat illustration with her clever hands of bending steel; Louise Gold’s miming and Alexandra Korey’s singing do each other justice; she then rejoins the other girls. The Cops keep not leaving, eventually they appear to, but after the Major General and his girls have gone back inside they reappear and head off the other way. 

                In the mausoleum, Frederic hears a sound, Ruth and The Pirate King. Angela Lansbury is now dressed in her pirate outfit, a red suit, and brandishing a sword of her own. They explain to Frederick the situation of him having been born on 29 February, A Paradox A Paradox A Most Ingenious Paradox. All three sang well. Kevin Kline was really good, even if he did sing it in a distinctly American accent. He and Angela Lansbury handled the patter really well. They also danced about in terrific style. Angela did not look much older than when she appeared in The Harvey Girls at MGM.  The Choreographer had given them some business with their swords, Kevin’s got stuck in his boot, so Angela helped him get it out. Forced to rejoin his comrades, Frederick also has to confess Major General Stanley’s lying to them. The Pirate King vows vengeance.

                Frederick explains to Mabel, and they bid each other farewell in song, promising to remain true to their true loves, and wait a long time until Frederick is finally of age (going by Birthdays). Once he has departed, The Policemen (who have been hiding in the bushes) enter. Mabel explains the Frederick can no longer lead them to glory, so they must just do their duty without him. The agree A Policeman’s Lot Is Not A Happy One. The number was danced very well and is very funny. However, they make a lot of noise tap dancing, so one of the girls, Kate, comes and shuts to door of the castle.

                Presently the policemen hear a sound, and run and hide in the bushes, it is The Pirates sailing up the river, singing With Cat Like Tread, which I think is one of the best tunes that Sir Arthur Sullivan wrote. Gathered in front of Tremorden Castle, The Pirate King distributes the equipment, a point in the film that gives several of the Pirates, ranging from short David Hatton to tall Tim Bentink, a little moment to shine. Then Major General Stanley comes out of the front door, dressed only in his nightgown (not even a dressing gown); his guilty conscience is keeping him awake, so he cavorts in the moonlight singing about it. The camera pans over the set, we see the river, a bridge, the cattle, and a plot of singing daffodils that join in waving in the breeze, I wonder who animated those! The Pirates are soon swarming about the place, led magnificently by Kevin Kline, although all the others ‘dance’ very well, they are clearly good movers, and Graciela Danielle has done a good job with the choreography. They also manage to use their arms effectively; I particularly noticed one tall Pirate (I think it was Tim Bentink – grubby straw hat and beard) waving his sword around. Rex Smith enters dutifully into the spirit of the number too. They follow The Major General, tracking him about the grounds.

The Pirates have just caught up with him and are about the attack him, when suddenly Frederick points back down the path. Running up it, towards them, are the girls (in their night attire), tall Edith at the fore, holding Papa’s dressing gown, which she helps him into. It is noticeable that although one or two of the other girls are fairly tall, at 5ft9” Louise Gold is the tallest. She is also a very noticeable actress, striking mane of auburn hair. One of the other girls, possibly Leni Harper (who is 5ft7”), has very dark reddish almost brown hair, which is much longer than Louise’s, however; she is not as noticeable an actress. But then again, Louise Gold does have a very distinctive acting style (uncannily similar to a certain actress from the previous generation, only Ms Gold has improved upon it, taking it much further), very often she just cannot help attracting the audiences attention, whether she really means to or not.

                The Pirates are about the seize Major General Stanley and get the girls, who clustered in a group, looking worried, Tilly Vosburgh is again positioned just in front of Louise Gold. Both the Major General and Mabel beg for someone to save them. On cue the policemen hiding in the bushes reveal themselves and proceed to chase The Pirates, with The Major General and the girls following. They run out of the orchard, and into the town square, where a production of H.M.S Pinafore is taking place in the local theatre. The Pirates, lead by Ruth and The Pirate King run in, followed by The Police. The Pinafore company are in the middle of a very staid ‘traditional G&S’ recital of “Now give three cheers, I’ll lead the way”, when swashbuckling Kevin Kline tears his way through the backdrop. The Pinafore cast are aghast, and The Pinafore audience don’t seem to quite know what to make of it. The Pirates continue to fight with anyone who gets in their way. Kevin Kline has a very funny fight with The Pinafore conductor, who is using his baton and bits of percussion to defend himself; before finally managing to bend his dagger across the Police Chief. Meanwhile Angela Lansbury, putting her previous film experience to good use, gives a great fight with her sword, and anything else to hand, reminding one very much of the fight scene she had (as Em The salon gal) with Judy Garland in The Harvey Girls.

                Eventually the Pirates, Police and Pinafore Company tumble out of the theatre into the square, The Police Chief reprimands the Pirate King, telling him he may have got a little advantage just then, but they are still going to get him. The Pirate King responds by telling him “and don’t tell us you’re orphans, because we know that trick”. The Police Chief does not, pointing to a statue in the square, he charges them to “yield in Queen Victoria’s name.”. Kevin Kline and an abashed looking Angela Lansbury are the first, handing over their swords, heads bowed, followed by the rest of the band, because with all their faults they love their Queen. Tim Bentink and anyone else wearing a hat removes it.  The other members of the company, Police (who remove their helmets), Pinafore Company and Maidens also bow their heads for a time. Louise Gold’s chestnut bunches seem to have a slight life of their own, they are moving slightly out of sync with the rest of her body, it takes brief moment longer after her head has moved, for her hair to obey the laws of gravity. The Major General orders that The Pirates be taken away and locked up, but at that moment, Ruth, in truly G&S Operetta finale style (Buttercup, for example, has a similar role to perform at the end of Pinafore), appeals to the Police chief and the Major General, they are not common pirates, “they are all noblemen who have gone wrong”. The chorus join in, and the camera pans back to the pirates, who have now donned black bowler hats. The are standing in a diagonal line, (audience view from back left to front right of the square) with Kevin Kline, the (ex) Pirate King at the front end of the line, and (real nobleman) Timothy Charles Robert Noel Bentink at the other end. The Pirate King, renouncing piracy for politics, shakes hands with the Police Chief. Whereupon Major General Stanley offers his girls to the ex pirates, much to the girls delight, who jump about very enthusiastically and run over to join the pirates in the square. The delightful Louise Gold was one of the most noticeably enthusiastic of all of them. This leads into a riotous finale. The Police Chief pairs up with Ruth and soon everyone is waltzing about the square together. The tall slim dark handsome ex-Pirate King (Kevin Kline) was paired off with dumpy blond Kate (Terasa Codling), indeed in pairing off nearly everyone got comically paired with their exact opposite. For example Edith, the 5ft9” Louise Gold, got paired off with Samuel, short David Hatton. And similarly a tall rugged-looking Pirate, Tim Bentick got paired off with a small graceful girl. But this all added to the fun of the film’s joyful finale, a finale moreover which seemed to capture the joyous laughing spirit of the film.


Overall this fun filled film, like the Wilford Leach & Joseph Papp stage version on which it is based, is Gilbert and Sullivan like you’ve never seen it before. If you like musicals, but think Gilbert and Sullivan isn’t really you’re thing, then this film might just make you change your mind. It is such a refreshing change from the staid “traditional” way of doing G&S. However, if you like Gilbert and Sullivan done in the ‘traditional’ operatic way, then you may find that this film is not your cup of tea. The majority of actors performing in this film, whether singing themselves or not, are not usually associated with G&S, at least not in the ‘traditional’ sense. The singing however is very well handled. Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith, in particular all have lovely voices. For me the only down side is that, although the Broadway chorus also sing very well, I wish the British actors in the film had done their own singing, if only because it seems a bit of a waste of some people’s talents. However, that said the Broadway chorus performs well and the British actors mime to it very very effectively, in particular: Timothy Bentink, David Hatton, Tilly Vosburgh, Terasa Codling and of course Louise Gold. All in all it is a good fun film, and one which enables Gilbert and Sullivan’s wonderful work to be enjoyed by a wider audience than might otherwise be the case.



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