THE DVD SHELF: The French Theatrical Epic "Children of Paradise," "Mad Men" and Gilbert & Sullivan & Groucho on TV

By Steven Suskin
October 21, 2012

This month, we screen Marcel Carné's backstage masterpiece "Children of Paradise"; Groucho Marx in The Mikado and Alfred Drake & Barbara Cook in Yeomen of the Guard; plus the fifth season of "Mad Men."



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Marcel Carné's Children of Paradise [Criterion] — or more properly "Les Enfants du Paradis" — was something of a triumph of will over the Nazis. Filmed during the Occupation, this three-hour-plus epic swept into Paris just two months after the German retreat in 1945, demonstrating that the French film industry — and, more importantly, the French spirit — was able to create a major work of art despite the pressures of war. Said pressures included making this most-expensive French film in history — it has been called the French "Gone with the Wind" — under severe rationing, with whatever materials could be found; under the supervision of an unfriendly and suspicious government; and with the production team including an art designer and composer who were both Jews in hiding. Plus other assorted travails, including the co-star who turned out to be a collaborationist and fled before the completion of filming, forcing them to reshoot his scenes with a replacement. And yet "Children of Paradise" was an acclaimed masterpiece, both in France and abroad, and remains high on the list of the greatest films of the world cinema.

Read the earlier Playbill Picks feature, which names "Children of Paradise" one of the five greatest movies about the theatre

The backstory makes it a revered classic, yes; but that sort of thing means little to an audience watching a film in their living rooms 70 years later. What does matter is that "Children of Paradise" is — regardless of history — captivating and enthralling. It is not a story of the war; Carné and his screenwriter Jacques Prévert, under close watch due to political innuendo in their prior films, purposely chose a period piece. (While the events take place 120 years earlier, Garance — the central character who lives and survives by her own code — can be seen as a contemporary Parisian struggling to live under the Occupation.)

This is a historical romance of sorts, featuring not a love triangle but what we might call a love pentagon. The aforementioned Garance is the woman in the case, something of a courtesan — or, rather, a woman living by her wit and charm. She is simultaneously drawn into the lives of a soon-to-be famous actor, a soon-to-be legendary mime, a soon-to-be infamous criminal and an already famous Count. These four are not fictional, as it turns out; all were celebrated in their day although the Count is given a different name, and the mime (Baptiste Deburau) and actor (Frederick LeMaître) retained their fame into the 20th century.

Marķa Casares and Jean-Louis Barrault in "Children of Paradise."

The project originated, in fact, when actor Jean-Louis Barrault suggested to Carné that they make a film about Deburau. While the director soon decided against making a biography, he was fascinated by the milieu of the so-called "Boulevard of Crime" — actually the Boulevard du Temple — which was the Broadway of its time, circa 1827. Let it be added that Barrault's idea about a mime forced to speak for himself was sparked as he watched the silent clown Charlie Chaplin "speak" in his 1940 classic, "The Great Dictator."

Mention of Chaplin's genius focuses our attention on Barrault, a famous French stage actor/director who at the time was a member of the Comédie Française. The performance here is astounding; from his first scene, as a wispy scarecrow of a mime with a forlorn face to his several traditional mime scenes, as Pierrot — to his non-whiteface scenes as a hypersensitive romantic — Barrault is truly mesmerizing. He is almost matched by Arletty, as his impossibly-idolized Garance. Pierre Brasseur plays the actor Lemaître with an overlay of jambon masking his inner-emptiness; as the intermingled affairs play out, he discovers jealousy and thus undertakes Othello, resulting in a masterful full-company scene where Baptiste and Garance are unmasked, as it were. Marcel Herrand is the villain, Louis Salou is the Count, and Maria Casarès is the other woman in this complicated tale. Add to this Pierre Renoir — elder son of the painter Auguste, brother to director Jean — as the mysterious ragman Jéricho, who stepped in late in the filming to replace the fleeing rat.

Speaking of rats, there is a wickedly funny portrait of a playwright — three playwrights, in fact, who sit around in their starched shirts like stuffed dindons. But the whole thing is a delicious backstage story, with many scenes overstuffed with actors, acrobats, dancers, stagehands, and more. But for all the splendors, visual, musical and more, I keep coming back to that astounding performance by Barrault as Baptiste. Magic.

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Cover art for "The Mikado."
The CD of the 1960 "Bell Telephone Hour" version of Groucho Marx in The Mikado [VAI] has sat upon my shelf for several months, for several reasons: Groucho as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, sounds like a stunt; this was Groucho turning 70, and I generally find his post-1950 acting performances more grating than funny (while enjoying his interviews and game shows); to fit within the Bell Telephone Company's hour, the operetta had to be shoehorned into 52 minutes; the cast album of this production — recorded by Columbia, currently available on CD from DRG — did not leave me aching to see it; and finally, just how interesting can a cut-down 1960 TV version of The Mikado starring Groucho Marx be? Out of a sense of obligation, I finally watched the thing. And I was wrong.

Yes, it is cut down; but I usually find The Mikado overlong, anyway. And this is not just arbitrarily cut by some TV hack; Martyn Green, the renowned Savoyard, adapted and produced it. So it plays pretty well considering the time restraints. The supporting cast offers some welcome performances. Robert Rounseville — who several years earlier created the title role in Candide — makes a charming Nanki-Poo. Stanley Holloway is very much in evidence as Pooh-Bah, and the Katisha of the occasion is an extremely funny Helen Traubel.

For the Mikado they have enlisted Broadway veteran Dennis King, who starred in the 1920s operetta hits Rose-Marie and The Three Musketeers. King and Green appeared together in the ill-fated 1956 musical Shangri-La. Green looks quite fit in his on-camera introduction, belying the fact that six months earlier he was in an elevator accident in a parking garage which resulted in the emergency amputation of his leg on the grimy floor, apparently without anesthesia.

The staging is stylish, clever and pretty funny. True, this is a "Bell Telephone Hour" production, but it looks pretty good. (It was telecast in color, but all that seems to survive is the black & white kinescope from which this release derives.) Special features include the commercials from the original telecast — which are thankfully not permitted to interrupt the operetta — and a new audio commentary from Groucho-expert Dick Cavett, Barbara Meister (who plays Pitti-Sing), and Melinda Marx Leung, who at the age of 13 played Peep-Bo, one of those little maids from school. She comments that it was her father's lifelong dream to play Ko-Ko.

The big question is "how is Groucho?," seemingly the reason for this venture. In a word, he is a delight. He is thoroughly at home in the genre; The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, his early stage musicals, were clearly influenced by G&S, with Groucho as the patter-singing comedian. Here, he doesn't miss a beat or a leer or a gag. He spits out his words with great skill, flits about the scenery like a firefly, takes great advantage of a malfunctioning prop fan (or is it planned)? His courtship scenes with Traubel are perfect, summoning up all those years with Margaret Dumont; and all is won he throws a bit of his Capt. Spalding hornpipe into "There is beauty of the bellow in the blast."

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Cover art for "The Yeomen of the Guard."
VAI also brings us a second abridged bit of Gilbert & Sullivan, Hallmark's The Yeomen of the Guard. This is decidedly lesser G & S, certainly; I don't suppose many readers have felt the urge to revisit it too frequently. As with The Mikado, this is cut-down and taken from a kinescope, with the color version lost. It's main interest lies in the cast. Alfred Drake plays the jester Jack Point and narrates; it's always good to see Drake in his prime, but he seems rather uncomfortable here. Far more successful are the two Ado Annies in attendance. Celeste Holm, who since opening in Oklahoma! had become an Oscar-winning movie star, plays Phoebe; Barbara Cook, midway between Candide and The Music Man, plays Elsie. Also on hand are Bill Hayes, Henry Calvin and Robert Wright. This one has Franz Allers, of My Fair Lady, leading the orchestra.

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Cover art

The first four seasons of Mad Men were rewarding and entertaining, but consistent; boys will be boys and ad men will be ad men, it seemed, even as the age of Kennedy turned into the age of Vietnam with myriad social changes. In the somewhat delayed-by-contract-negotations Season Five, though, creator Matthew Weiner seems to have realized that change is good — even if it started to upset the hedonistic apple cart he had created in his first four award-winning terms.

Thus, Don Draper matured and grew responsible, settling down like a dutiful husband — only to find that his young wife was from a new, liberated generation that he can't begin to understand. The other principals dealt with issues more severe than heretofore, highlighted by one of them trading sex for a partnership (with a signed contract in advance), and another committing suicide. "Mad Men" is, of course, fun to watch as it unfolds week to week, with tension mounting as they come to the climactic end (although Season Six won't be here till next spring). But continuity-wise, you get a richer dose by sitting still for 13 hours — in two or three stretches — over a weekend or holiday and watching it all unfold. The four-disc set from Lionsgate includes commentaries from cast and crew plus varied features, including one which accompanies composer David Carbonara and orchestrator Geoff Stradling as they score an episode.

Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser and John Slattery continue to entertain us, along with newcomer Jessica Paré, the now-departed Jared Harris, and the ever-rewarding Robert Morse. They have also continued to develop the character of Draper's young daughter Sally, played by Kiernan Shipka; this allows Weiner to bring back his own son Marten, who played the misfit neighbor boy in some eerie scenes during the first season. Now a misfit prep school boy, one expects and hopes that this intriguing storyline will develop into something suitably startling.

Read Playbill's recent Leading Men column featuring Kartheiser (the series' dissatisfied Pete Campbell), who during his recent "Mad Men" hiatus starred in a world-premiere play in California

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes," "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's Book Shelf and On the Record columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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