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Frederic’s 42nd Birthday, a Retrospective on the 1983 film adaptation of The Pirates of Penzance


Finland and Soviet Russia were at war. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran for a third term as President of the United States. 

Adolf Hitler rolled the Nazi war machine across Belgium, Poland, and France. 

Winston Churchill was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

On February 29th, the New York Times published a short article called ‘Frederic Goes Free’ (Author n/a). 

It is not unprecedented for newspapers to cover events befalling fictional characters. The deaths of Superman in 1993 (Newsweek Staff, Newsweek) and Godzilla in 1995 (Foywonder) were both covered by respected news outlets. The difference here is that several of you are waiting for me to explain who this ‘Frederic’ is and how he occupies a similar pop culture standing as Superman and Godzilla.

The original ‘Frederic Goes Free’ article published in 1940, The New York Times.

Frederic is the protagonist of the Victorian light opera The Pirates of Penzance or The Slave of Duty, written by W. S. Gilbert and composed by Sir Arthur Sullivan, that debuted in New York in 1879 before arriving in London in 1880. In the play Frederic is cursed with three particular misfortunes. He was born in a leap year, accidentally apprenticed to a band of pirates from which he would only be released upon his 21st birthday, and he grew up with a comically overdeveloped sense of duty (hence the play’s alternate title). These peculiar traits trap Frederic in a conflict between the titular pirates (led by the Pirate King) and Major General Stanley whose daughters the pirates wish to marry. A conflict that goes on to involve the local constabulary.

The inherent absurdity of this premise and the conflict is intentional, Gilbert & Sullivan’s partnership produced some of the funniest satires in the English language. Light operas (a comic opera with spoken dialogue instead of recitative singing) built around inherent absurdities in the tropes of popular Victorian culture. Gilbert would construct comic situations, self-contradictory plots and larger than life characters out of these ideas while Sullivan would set them to music, music that could sound whimsical and jovial one moment and genuinely beautiful the next (‘I Have a Song to Sing, O!’, ‘Take a Pair of Sparkling Eyes’ and ‘The Sun Whose Rays are all Ablaze’ are all wonderful examples of Sullivan’s music at its most beautiful). At the peak of their popularity in the 19th century Gilbert & Sullivan were so beloved in both the US and the UK they had an issue with unlicensed performances of their shows in the US (hence why Pirates debuted in New York before London). If any of this has piqued your interest then I honestly recommend The Pirates of Penzance as a starting place for Gilbert and Sullivan. It highlights everything that makes them brilliant while being the most recognizable of their work.

And since this is a film blog I am delighted to report that there is a film of The Pirates of Penzance that does the material justice, released in 1983 that would make for fit viewing on this, Frederic’s 42nd birthday.

The Pirates of Penzance film actually began life as a revival of the original show that debuted in Shakespeare in the Park in 1979 before moving to Broadway in 1981. Produced by Joseph Papp, directed by Wilford Leach, choreographed by Graciela Danielle, and with William Elliott adapting, reorchestrating and conducting the score (Davis, New York Times). Pirates was a huge hit and was brought to film in 1983 with the same creative team (Author n/a, New York Times). The film also kept one of the show's best features, its cast. A fun mix of film actors, theatre actors, and singers who can act. Kevin Kline as the Pirate King, Rex Smith as Frederic, George Rush as Modern Major General Stanley, Linda Rondstadt as Mabel, and Tony Azito as the Chief of Police. The only actor who didn't travel from stage to screen was Patricia Rutledge as Ruth (Frederic’s nursery maid), replaced for the film by Angela Lansbury.

It is very easy to mistranslate theater to cinema. On one end of the spectrum you have films like The Producers (2005) that are widely criticized for being little better than filmed stagings of the original plays, but on the other end are films like Tom Hooper's Cats (2019) that have so little regard for the original shows that it feels disrespectful. These issues are all compounded when adapting theater as demanding as opera or light opera, where the music is more integral and more technically difficult. There are only a few films that hit the sweet spot for adapting opera to screen like Tales of Hoffman (1951), The Magic Flute (1975), or Otello (1986) but these are often the work of accomplished cinematic masters (Ingmar Bergman, Powell & Pressburger, and Franco Zeffirelli respectively). And as if all this wasn't enough, adapting 19th century comedy for a 20th century audience (much less a 21st century one) is yet another layer of difficulty, as the temptation to simply modernize the humor hangs over the head of the production.

Wilford Leach’s film manages to avoid all of these pitfalls, striking a balance between honoring the source material and making a cinematic film, understanding the technical challenge of working with opera, and bringing a Victorian comedy to the screen while bringing its humor to life.

In regards to striking the balance between cinema and opera Leach and  Papp (joined by film producer Edward R. Pressman) not only kept the creative team from Broadway intact but they brought on the best film talent they could get their hands on. The film is shot by Douglas Slocombe, who had served as cinematographer for The Music Lovers (1971), The Lion in Winter (1968) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) (after Pirates he would go on to do the next two Indiana Jones films as well). For editor the film brought in five time academy award nominee Anne V. Coates, known for projects like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Beckett (1963), and The Elephant Man (1980). As such the film not only has everything that made the show work, but now it has the look and rhythm of a film.

An easy way to see this is to compare the film with the recording of the original Shakespeare in the Park production. The cast and crew are the same, the material is technically the same, but the two versions are unique to their mediums. Furthermore, comparing the final film to the film’s shooting script shows how many of those changes were trusted to Anne V. Coates in the editing bay. A lot of jokes that are played loud on stage are now subtle or even unique to the film. There are several jokes told with cuts, creative juxtapositions, and in one sequence even fast-motion used for comic effect. Almost all of the songs are shortened from shooting script to final film to keep pacing brisk. The film uses limited locations but Slocombe comes up with every conceivable angle to film those locations, with one shot of the police during ‘When the Foeman Bares his Steel’ shot from above to evoke Busby Berkley musicals. My favorite addition to the film is an entire slapstick finale with a new instrumental version of ‘With Cat-Like Tread’, which comes after two hours of comic tension and conflict escalation and feels like the film is finally cutting loose. 

This is a good segway to talk about the film's comedy, specifically how it translates Victorian comic sensibilities to modern audiences. This is achieved by understanding the timeless aspects of the comedy and allowing the rest of the production to grow out from there.

The Pirates of Penzance is a comedy of roles, specifically people who are ill suited for the societal roles they inhabit but instead double down and perform those roles with an almost hyper-enthusiastic gusto. The pirates are bad at piracy, they don't attack anyone weaker than themselves but stronger targets always get the best of them. They always spare orphans but word has got out about this and so EVERYONE they attack claims to be an orphan. Ruth was so bad at her job as a nursery maid that she accidentally apprenticed Frederic to a band of pirates (mishearing ‘pilot’), and so pivots midway through the play into being a pirate herself. The Modern Major General’s entire song is essentially about how all the knowledge he has that makes him ‘the very model of a modern major general' is little better than useless trivia. ALL of the policeman’s songs about how they would rather not arrest people and at one point the Police Chief literally remarks “It is most distressing to us to be the agents whereby our erring fellow creatures are deprived of that liberty which is so dear to us all…but we should have thought of that before we joined the force.”

The major general’s daughters are perhaps exempt from this, but they exist in such a gleeful space of performative hyper-feminitity that they fit in with everyone else.

This isn't ALL of the comedy present in Pirates (misunderstandings, puns and verbal wordplay play a pretty significant role as well) but once you understand that this is a world of people struggling with performance it suggests a certain artificiality to the world itself. It's what Greta Gerwig called ‘authentic artificiality’, films that exist in formally expressive artificial spaces with no attempt to evoke realism, New York, New York (1977), One From the Heart (1981) and Speed Racer (2008) are all good examples of the ethos of authentic artificiality. The world of The Pirates of Penzance isn't ours, but a weird little parallel reality where it's always a sunny day, people sing to express their feelings, and have no idea how ridiculous their struggles really are. According to Leach’s screenplay, silent cinema was also a big inspiration on the tone and the comedy style of the film, from Kline’s athletic full body performance as the Pirate King to the policemen embodying the tradition of keystone cops.

Despite coming off a successful Broadway show, having a lot of talent and getting good reviews, The Pirates of Penzance was a box office flop when it came out. Universal made the baffling decision to simultaneously release the film on television and in theaters causing theater chains to boycott the film and kneecapping it at the box office. It came out on VHS in 1984 with a cropped aspect ratio and didn't even have a DVD release with its full widescreen until 2010 with a Blu-ray sometime after, both remain in print. The film was streaming on Hulu for a while until Universal started moving their content off Hulu and now you can't stream it anywhere. A few pirates have uploaded the film to YouTube and the quality on those versions is pretty good.

To me, the 1983 Pirates of Penzance is a cult classic waiting to find an audience. The film makes no attempt to bring in viewers who are not already in on the joke and you figure out pretty quick if you're on the films wavelength or not. There are so many ways the filmmakers could have made something more popular but they chose instead to do something incredibly specific and do it well. 


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