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Gilbert and Sullivan (1953)

The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (original title)
The common career of W.S. Gilbert,a barrister turned comic writer, and Arthur Sullivan, a classic composer turned converted against his will to light music, who wrote fourteen operettas between 1871 and 1896, to great public acclaim.



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Martyn Green ...
Muriel Aked ...
Michael Ripper ...
Bernadette O'Farrell ...
Ann Hanslip ...
Eric Berry ...
Yvonne Marsh ...
Second bride
Lloyd Lamble ...
Joseph Bennett


The common career of W.S. Gilbert,a barrister turned comic writer, and Arthur Sullivan, a classic composer turned converted against his will to light music, who wrote fourteen operettas between 1871 and 1896, to great public acclaim.

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


Music! Mirth! Magic! See more »


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Release Date:

15 February 1953 (Sweden)  »

Also Known As:

Gilbert and Sullivan  »

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Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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Did You Know?


Coincidentally, a poster outside D'Oyle Carte's office shows a caricature of Oscar Wilde; an actor plays Oscar Wilde briefly in another scene, and two of the male leads, Robert Morley and Peter Finch, would go on to play Oscar Wilde themselves in later movies. See more »


Referenced in Frasier: They're Playing Our Song (2000) See more »

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User Reviews

It was greatly to their credit
11 November 2004 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

There is a tragic gap in British drama beginning in the year 1800 when they stopped producing good dramatists. Some big names tried to do the stage well. Percy Shelley came closest with his unstaged poetic tragedy THE CENCI. Tennyson tried several verse plays. Robert Browning did a verse play or two. One of them, a Renaissance play called PIPPA PASSES was dreadful, but gave us the phrase "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world".

From 1800 to 1870 the average new play had some story about a scoundrel trying to steal a fortune or "betray" a woman. There were some interesting moments. Bulwer - Lytton did an acceptable historical drama RICHELIEU, with it's "curse of Rome" scene. Dion Boucicault kept up the tradition of Irish born playwrights stepping in to save or ornament British theater - with comedies mostly (LONDON ASSURANCE). Then came Tom Robinson, who decided that realism was the key. His plays are slight ones like CASTE, but "teacup" drama (as it was sneeringly called) opened a revival of the real world.

Robinson died in 1871, but he left a friend: William Schwenck Gilbert, a barrister who was gifted at writing comic verse (THE BAB BALLADS). Gilbert started writing comic works for the stage. They were successful. Gilbert knew (he was a lawyer) what a writer could get away with under Victorian censorship. He eschewed realism in his best work, writing of a mirror world like ours called "topsy-turvey". His characters were perfectly normal but got crazy notions. The First Lord of the Admiralty gets indignant when the Captain of his leading ship curses out a sailor (although that Captain has just stopped his daughter eloping with the sailor). A Lord Chancellor suffers crazy nightmares (in which he can plant grocers into the ground to get trees that sprout foodstuffs). A popular poet agrees to become a commonplace at the demand of a rival, but unexpectedly wins the love of a simple dairymaid who sees it is not selfish to love someone so commonplace. Gilbertian logic works on paper and stage. It filled up theaters for the 19th Century, and still does.

Gilbert was found his mate in Arthur Sullivan, an above average (but not great) musician and composer. He had gifts for imitation and musical satire that mirrored Gilbert's mad logic. They would compose 15 operettas together from 1871 (THESPIS) to 1896 (THE GRAND DUKE). Of these at least ten or eleven are revived frequently. It is the only Victorian dramatic material (outside of the late Victorian flurry of Shaw, Wilde, Pinero, and Jones) that still is revived. Gilbert and Sullivan is high Victorian theater.

Creatively they meshed but both men were ill-suited to each other. Sullivan was a good natured snob, who could coax people to do what he wanted, and who made friends mostly with the upper classes. Gilbert was a bad-tempered cynic with few friends, but he was understanding about the needs of the theater. In fact, had he not done his work with Sullivan he would be recalled for his developing that tradition of rehearsal and stage management that makes modern theater possible.

Sullivan did not think of the Savoy operettas as his major work. He thought his oratorios, symphony, his overtures, and his one opera IVANHOE were his monument. Gilbert knew what worked or flopped. People still recognize "Tit-Willow", or "A Model Major General" as classic songs of the 19th Century. No tune from IVANHOE is recognized today. To be fair, a theme in the third movement of "The Irish Symphony" is recognizable, but that does not say much. While a disgruntled Gilbert sat through IVANHOE and said he was not bored, he also said that a cobbler should stick to his last. Gilbert was a very wise man.

Their personality clashes grew due to Sullivan insisting on more realistic drama and his snubbing Gilbert's creative genius. Their producer Richard D'Oyly Carte supported Sullivan (who was easier to work with), and it was Carte who built the Savoy Hotel with Sullivan as one of his board of directors (Gilbert was not even asked), and who built the Royal English Opera House for Sullivan's opera. It all came to a head in 1889, as G.& S.'s THE GONDOLIERS was having it's hit run -Carte charged for a new carpet at the Savoy theater, and each partner had to pay one third the cost. Gilbert insisted that it was Carte's expense because it fell within the upkeep of the theater. Actually Gilbert was correct (the inevitable lawsuit was won by Gilbert), but Sullivan sided with Carte.

It strained the partnership and briefly ended it. There were two late operettas (UTOPIA LIMITED - with a brilliant spoof of British society, but mediocre music; and THE GRAND DUKE, with a lousy libretto - Gilbert could write badly - and some decent music). After 1896 there was only silence, except for revivals.

Robert Morley plays the irascible Gilbert perfectly, and Maurice Evans gives a smooth performance as Sullivan. Peter Finch has very little to do in the film as Carte (his highpoint is when he demonstrates an electric light-bulb at the opening of the Savoy Theatre in 1881). Martyn Gilbert is good as George Grossmith, though he does not get to show Grossmith's drug addiction. The production numbers are good - though those in TOPSY-TURVEY are far better. But TOPSY-TURVEY looks at the events of only two years of the partnership: 1883 - 1885 when Gilbert slowly created their masterpiece THE MIKADO. So it could concentrate on the creation of the product and it's final appearance. TOPSY-TURVEY is good to get an in-depth look at a stage of the partnership. THE STORY OF GILBERT AND SULLIVAN gives a fine overview of it's rise and fall.

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