DVD’s: Dearest Enemy, Chocolate Soldier 
and The Mikado

Each of three new DVDs of 1955 and 1960 televised musicals has its own charms, but one stands out as the most delightful of the bunch. It is the 1955 black and white television adaptation of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s first successful book musical, Dearest Enemy.

1925 was the year that transformed Rodgers and Hart from wannabes to stars. That was the year that The Garrick Gaieties made such a splash as a one-day fund-raising show that it became a full-out, open-run Broadway hit, and its big hit number, “Manhattan” became the rage. It was still playing (at The Garrick Theatre, naturally) when Dearest Enemy opened to high praise and solid sales. All of sudden, 23 year-old Richard Rodgers and 30 year-old Lorenz Hart were successful Broadway score writers – and they would stay such for nearly two decades.

They wrote Dearest Enemy before The Garrick Gaieties, but weren’t able to get any producers interested in mounting it until after Gaieties made them a hot item.

If you think that 1776 was the first successful musical based on a true story of the American Revolution, think again. Dearest Enemy had been inspired by Larry Hart’s interest in a historical plaque in the Murray Hill neighborhood on New York’s 37th street. It told the story of a Mrs. Murray who entertained General Howe and his officers “with a profusion of cake and wine” long enough for a rebel army to escape from Howe’s clutches and join General Washington’s forces, thus saving the day for the American Revolution.

Hart asked Herbert Fields to craft a book for a musical around that story. Adding a love interest between Mrs. Murray’s daughter and General Howe’s young assistant and a number of plot twists and turns, Fields left places for songs and dances of which Rodgers and Hart took full advantage. “Here In My Arms” became something of a minor standard in the Rodgers canon.

Rodgers’ music was light, lively and lovely. Bordman and Norton’s American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle contrasts this score with that of another hit that opened the same week, Vincent Youmans’ No No Nanette, saying that while “it was practically impossible not to predict the next note or turn of phrase in Nanette‘s songs, Dearest Enemy‘s tunes titillated their audience with delicious and unexpected surprises.”

There was no movie version of Dearest Enemy. After all, it’s time on Broadway was before the advent of sound films. Thirty years after its opening, however, Max Liebman produced this television version with an adaptation by William Friedberg and none other than Neil Simon.

Cast as the British General Howe was Cyril Richard playing the role as a dandy with a sharp sense of humor. It was near-perfect casting as Richard does ‘dandy’ like no other. He seemed a bit unsure of himself a few times, focusing just next to the camera in search of cue cards, and often posing while waiting for his next line, but the charming humor of his delivery was altogether winning. 

Opposite him as Mrs. Murray was Cornelia Otis Skinner and, to play the younger couple in the fictional love interest, real-life husband and wife Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling came over from their two year stint as the ghostly couple George and Marion Kerby in the TV series Topper. Their duet on “Here In My Arms” is a memorable highlight.

Another of Max Liebman’s 1955 television adaptations of older musicals was the Oscar Straus operetta The Chocolate Soldier based on George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man in which a soldier fleeing from battle hides in the boudoir of the fiancé of an officer of the enemy’s army. 

The Chocolate Soldier was even older than Dearest Enemy, having opened on Broadway in 1909. Risë Stevens played the woman whose boudoir was invaded. She had starred in the 1941 movie of the musical, but that version used a very different storyline because Shaw wouldn’t grant permission to use his plot. The original story was restored but streamlined for this television version.

The best thing about this new release on DVD is the opportunity to watch the performance of Eddie Albert as the soldier. He’s charming, with a sly sense of humor, a nifty way of gliding through a scene and a fine voice for light operetta style songs. Co-staring with Albert and Stevens are Earl Wrightson as the stick in the mud officer who intends to marry Stevens’ character and Akim Tamiroff as her father.

In both of these DVDs the orchestra comes through very well in a clean and clear mono that is very well balanced with the vocals they support.

A third new DVD release is simply disappointing.

Followers of this column may recall that I devoted the April 19, 2011 piece to the various books, CDs and DVDs of or about Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. At that time, there was an audio CD, but not a video DVD, of the 1960 Bell Telephone Hour’s television adaptation which starred Grouch Marx as Ko-Ko.

The DVD is now available, but do me a favor – if you don’t already know and love The Mikado, don’t make this your first exposure to the piece just because Groucho stars. He’s not very good, never subordinating his own persona to that of the character he’s playing and nearly always seeming very aware that he’s on television.

What is more, the abbreviation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s masterpiece to a measly 48 minutes (plus a two minute introduction by a stuffy Martyn Green fussing with his monocle and two more minutes of closing credits and announcements) leaves altogether too much out, reducing some of the gloriously silly concepts of Gilbert’s to simple statements of plot points. The supporting cast, including Helen Troubel and Robert Rounseville, are good and Dennis King is a delightful Mikado. 

Unfortunately, while the telecast was originally in color, no color copy could be found so this is a black and white DVD.

Dearest Enemy
Running time – 77 Minutes
VAI DVD 4550

The Chocolate Soldier
Running time – 77 Minutes
VAI DVD 4549

The Mikado

Running time – 52 Minutes + 46 Minutes of Bonus Features
 VIA DVD 4554

August 15, 2012