The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan
(Technicolor Film, 1953)

Partial Cast
W. S. GilbertRobert Morley
Arthur SullivanMaurice Evans
Richard D'Oyly CartePeter Finch
George GrossmithMartyn Green
Defendant, Nanki-PooThomas Round
[for remaining cast, see below]

Written by: Leslie Baily, Sidney Gilliat and Vincent Korda
Cinematography by: Christopher Challis
Produced by: Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder
Directed by: Sidney Gilliat

This film (also known, in the United States, by the title The Great Gilbert and Sullivan) is a reasonably faithful telling of the history of the G&S partnership. There are some gratuitous errors, but most of the historical inaccuracies are simply those needed to make this tale a compelling movie. At this the film succeeds spectacularly.

Movie Scene
George Grossmith as Sir Joseph Porter (Martyn Green), the principal soprano as Josephine (Ann Hanslip), and Rutland Barrington as the Captain (Eric Berry), perform a scene from H.M.S. Pinafore on their sea journey to the America.

Richard Simonton told me that the film originally ran with an intermission between reels three and four (of five total), and reel four began with an explanatory title to pick up the thread of the story after the break. This shows how movie-going tastes have changed, for it is only about two hours long, and no theater would schedule an intermission for such a film today.

In any event, the narrative moves at such a perfect pace that one is scarcely aware of the passage of time. One needn't be a G&S fan to enjoy this yarn; those who are fans will love seeing the familiar story told with such care. The inclusion of extended passages from several D'Oyly Carte productions of the time (particularly Trial by Jury) is an added bonus.

Movie Scene
Sullivan announces that he is tired of his music playing second fiddle to Gilbert's words. Left to right: Maurice Evans as Sir Arthur Sullivan, Eileen Herlie as Helen Lenoir, Carte's secretary, Peter Finch as Richard D'Oyly Carte, Isabel Dean as Mrs. Gilbert, and Robert Morley as W. S. Gilbert.

The film is based on Leslie Baily's The Gilbert and Sullivan Book, the most popular historical book on G&S ever written. Baily didn't hesitate to fictionalize parts of his book in order to make for a better story, and he doesn't hesitate in the film either. However, the film brilliantly conveys the spirit of what the G&S partnership was about, and historical scholars will forgive the occasional departures from historical fact in exchange for such a skillful storytelling job.

Richard Simonton says that the film was one of the first to be issued in stereophonic sound. I saw a showing of an original technicolor print at a Kentucky Opera symposium in the 1980s, and it was simply gorgeous. Even on the small screen, the viewer is amply rewarded. This is a film I can watch again and again.

Movie Poster
Poster for The Great Gilbert and Sullivan

Comments by Jamie Moffat

Advertising Poster
Poster for the The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan

I'm interested in the passionate response that this film seems to trigger in some people. Having just sat through it again, uninterrupted, my feelings about it are clarified.

With any film of this age, it's important to place it in context. Films like The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan were relatively common in 1953. Popular biographies of celebrated musical figures were fairly common and covered a wide turf, from Cole Porter to Marjorie Lawrence. The Great Caruso, though by no means the first of the series, had a resounding box office success. In the same year as TSOGAS, there was a biopic of Nellie Melba starring Patrice Munsel and Robert Morley, who was getting around at the time! Wagner had his turn in Magic Fire. The films were unified by a few things. They were usually in chocolate box technicolor, they had a huge emphasis on the soundtrack, and they played with the facts, often to the point where the subject was unrecognisable.

Its easy to sneer at this school of film making; it certainly manufactured "culture" for the masses in a way that now seems at best condescending and at worst unacceptable. Much of what now seems suspect about the G&S film was just giving the audience what they expected. They were entertainment first. Educating the audience came in a very distant second; in fact I doubt that it was considered at all. Compared with some other examples of this school of film making, TSOGAS is accuracy itself.

Robert Morley and Isabel Dean
The Gilberts at Home — Robert Morley and Isabel Dean

The irony is that since audience tastes have (inevitably) changed, TSOGAS can no longer hold a popular audience. Watching it with a group of non-G&S buffs it was astonishing how often the room dissolved into laughter at the film's archaic conventions and often hammy acting. Whilst I am the first to come leaping to the defence of old movies and did so in this case, I could see where they were coming from. As drama, per se, TSOGAS is dated and not especially diverting. (And yes, it does look a bit like Queen Victoria is reading the newspaper during The Golden Legend, though I know she's meant to be following the score. That scene got the biggest laugh of the night.)

What is encouraging though is how quickly the mood changed when the operatic scenes commenced. These were the moments that held the interest, rather than the framing device of the narrative — though of course one could hardly exist without the other. Ruddigore went down particularly well, and everybody in that room went toddling home with some G&S borrowed from my collection. So, TSOGAS still manages to communicate the delight of the Savoy Operas, and in this respect it is hugely successful.

On the whole I don't think its a bad film. Its just too hidebound by the conventions of the time to gather any momentum. Since I haven't seen Topsy-Turvy, I cannot make the comparison, nor am I clairvoyant enough to see how it will be perceived in 47 years. But like most films, it too will probably be showing its age.

Full Cast List

Peter Parker supplied the full cast list, taken from an "information folder which was originally issued about this film and which runs to some 452 pages of closely typed foolscap data":

W.S.GilbertRobert Morley
Arthur SullivanMaurice Evans
Helen 'Lenoir' D'Oyly CarteEileen Herlie
Richard D'Oyly CartePeter Finch
George GrossmithMartyn Green
Grace MarstonDinah Sheridan
Mrs GilbertIsabel Dean
Mr MarstonWilfred Hyde White
Queen VictoriaMuriel Aked
LouisMichael Ripper
Joseph BennettLloyd Lamble
CellierRichard Warner
LettyPerlita Neilson
SmytheLeonard Sachs
Theatre ManagerPhilip Ray
Captain of the BothniaIan Wallace
FergusonJohn Rae
PainterJoe Clarke
ArchitectChristopher Banks
Stage ManagerGeorge Cross
ReporterGeorge Woodbridge
PressmanHoward Douglas
DoormanRobert Brooks Turner
Office BoyJohn Quayle

The following artists portrayed members of the original D'Oyly Carte Opera Company.

George GrossmithMartyn Green
Rutland BarringtonEric Berry
Jessie BondBernadette O'Farrell
Principal SopranoAnn Hanslip
Principal TenorAnthony Snell
Principal ContraltoMuriel Brunskill
Principal Bass baritoneOwen Brannigan
Judge (Trial by Jury)Harold Williams
Bride (Trial by Jury)Yvonne Marsh
Defendant (Trial by Jury)Thomas Round
Nanki Poo (The Mikado)Thomas Round
Counsel (Trial by Jury)Kenneth Downey
Gianetta and Peep-BoSylvia Clarke
Ancestral Ghost (Ruddigore)Gron Davies
Usher (Trial by Jury)Arthur Howard
Pish Tush (The Mikado)Kenneth Moseley
Strephon (Iolanthe)John Banks
Bosun's Mate (H.M.S. Pinafore)John Hughes
Midshipman (H.M.S. Pinafore)Richard Morris

The following singers' voices were used, not all of whom appeared on screen: Webster Booth, Elsie Morison, Marjorie Thomas, John Cameron, Grodon Clinton, Owen Brannigan, Harold Williams, Thomas Round, Muriel Brunskill, Jennifer Vyvyan, Joan Gillingham

Issue History
1996 Musical Collectables VHS PAL, NTSC [unnumbered]