The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan is a 1953 British technicolor film that dramatises the story of the collaboration between W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan authored 14 comic operas, later referred to as the Savoy Operas, which became the most popular series of musical entertainments of the Victorian era and are still popular today. The film was written by Leslie Baily, Sidney Gilliat and Vincent Korda, based on Baily's The Gilbert and Sullivan Book. It was directed by Sidney Gilliat, with cinematography by Christopher Challis and production design by Hein Heckroth. It was produced by Gilliat and Frank Launder for Alexander Korda, head of London Film Productions and was produced in time to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. Some re-releases of the film retitled it The Great Gilbert and Sullivan.
In addition to describing the ups and downs of the partnership between Gilbert and Sullivan, and their relationships with their producer, Richard D'Oyly Carte, the movie also depicts many of the people who performed in the original runs of the operas and includes extensive musical excerpts from the works, staged with the assistance of Martyn Green, who advised on the performance practices of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. The film is similar in style to other popular biopics of the era, such as The Great Caruso and takes considerable dramatic licence with factual details and moves events in time. For example, the opening night of Iolanthe is depicted as being the opening of the Savoy Theatre, whereas the Savoy Theatre actually opened earlier, during the run of Patience. The music in the film is played by the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent.
The film starred Robert Morley as W. S. Gilbert, Maurice Evans as Arthur Sullivan, Peter Finch as Richard D'Oyly Carte, Eileen Herlie as Helen Carte and Martyn Green as George Grossmith. Appearances were also made by Dinah Sheridan as Grace Marston, Wilfrid Hyde-White as Mr. Marston, Leonard Sachs as Smythe, Owen Brannigan as the company's principal heavy baritone, Thomas Round as the company's principal tenor, Isabel Dean as Mrs. Gilbert, Arthur Howard as the Usher in Trial by Jury, and Michael Ripper as Louis.
The young composer Arthur Sullivan is encouraged by his friends and fiancÃ©e, Grace, to pursue the creation of "serious" works, such as his cantata The Prodigal Son, but he is pleased by the acclaim that he receives for the music to the short comic opera Trial by Jury, a collaboration with dramatist W. S. Gilbert. Grace leaves him, telling him that he is wasting his musical gifts on triviality, foreshadowing criticism from the musical establishment that will follow Sullivan for the rest of his career.
Still wrestling with this dilemma, Sullivan joins Gilbert and the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte in a partnership to create more light operas. Their subsequent operas, The Sorcerer and, especially, H.M.S. Pinafore, become so popular that they are pirated extensively in America. The entire company goes on tour there so that the partnership can profit from their fame in the new world. The Pirates of Penzance premieres in New York to much acclaim, and Carte soon builds a new theatre in London to present the partnership's operas. Everyone is delighted.
The Savoy Theatre opens with the opening night of Iolanthe. Sullivan revels in the atmosphere of the premiere, while Gilbert, as usual, is nervous and apprehensive. At the opening, Carte demonstrates the safety of the theatre's innovative electric lighting. Sullivan conducts the performance, but Gilbert escapes the theatre to walk the streets, returning just in time to take a triumphant curtain call before the enthusiastic crowd. Nevertheless, Sullivan is unhappy writing comic opera.
When Gilbert proposes a new piece involving the device of a magic lozenge, Sullivan objects that he wants to devote himself to serious music. Sullivan's friend, critic Joseph Bennett, writes a libretto for a cantata based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Golden Legend. Meanwhile, Gilbert, inspired by the sight of a Japanese sword hanging in his study, proposes a new plot, and Sullivan begins work. When Bennett goes to see Sullivan, he finds that The Mikado is being rehearsed instead of his cantata. He informs Sullivan that, if he would get around to finishing The Golden Legend, Queen Victoria will attend the premiere. Likewise, when Gilbert calls on Sullivan, he sees him rehearsing The Golden Legend, as Bennett stands watch. When Bennett dozes off, Sullivan turns back to The Mikado. After both works debut, Sullivan is knighted. The Queen inquires if he will write a grand opera.
Just before the premiere of their next opera, Ruddigore, Sullivan asks Gilbert to write the libretto for his first grand opera. Gilbert declines, stating that in such a work the words play second fiddle to the music, and Sullivan is angered saying that he has always had to hold the music back so that the words could predominate, and that he no longer takes pleasure in writing comic operas. Ruddigore receives negative reviews and some negative audience response. Although the piece is eventually a financial success, author and composer remain at odds. Mrs. Helen Carte travels to Monte Carlo to see Sullivan on holiday. She gives him the news that her husband will build another theatre to present grand opera, and wants Sullivan to compose an opera for the theatre. Sullivan happily agrees, but at the same time, Gilbert has written a libretto for another comic opera. Sullivan also accepts this libretto, and The Gondoliers is another hit.
Gilbert, suffering from gout, and in a particularly foul temper, examines the financial accounts of the partnership, seeing a large item for the purchase of a new carpet at the Savoy Theatre. He confronts Carte, at the new theatre, over lavish expenses. He also quarrels with Sullivan, and Gilbert announces that he will write no more Savoy operas. Sullivan's grand opera Ivanhoe debuts, and he presents a bound volume to the Queen. She commands a private performance at Windsor Castle but astonishes Sullivan by choosing to hear The Gondoliers. Apart from Gilbert, Sullivan comes to realise that his true gifts lie with light music.
Richard and Helen Carte toast the arrival of the twentieth century, hoping for a revival of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Stopping by at a rehearsal for a revival of The Yeomen of the Guard, Gilbert runs into Sullivan, after having been apart for years. Sullivan is ill and using a wheelchair. The two men make up and propose taking a curtain call together with Carte, all three of them in wheelchairs. During the performance, however, news arrives of Sullivan's death. Some years later, Gilbert is finally knighted.
- Robert Morley as W. S. Gilbert
- Maurice Evans as Arthur Sullivan
- Eileen Herlie as Helen D'Oyly Carte
- Martyn Green as George Grossmith
- Peter Finch as Richard D'Oyly Carte
- Dinah Sheridan as Grace Marston
- Isabel Dean as Mrs. Gilbert
- Wilfrid Hyde-White as Mr. Marston
- Muriel Aked as Queen Victoria
- Michael Ripper as Louis
- Bernadette O'Farrell as Jessie Bond
- Ann Hanslip as Principal soprano
- Eric Berry as Rutland Barrington
- Lloyd Lamble as Joseph Bennett
- Richard Warner as Alfred Cellier
- Muriel Brunskill as Principal contralto
- Owen Brannigan as Principal bass
- Harold Williams as Judge (Trial by Jury)
- Thomas Round as Defendant in Trial by Jury and Nanki Poo in The Mikado
- Yvonne Marsh as Bride in Trial by Jury
The following additional singing voices were heard on the soundtrack: Elsie Morison, Marjorie Thomas, Owen Brannigan, Harold Williams, Muriel Brunskill, John Cameron and Jennifer Vyvyan.
- The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan on the Internet Movie Database
- The film on the Gilbert and Sullivan Discography website
- The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan at BFI Screenonline
- The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan at The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive
- Posters (lobby cards) from the film
- Many photos from the production
- Martyn Green's reminiscences about making the film
- Photo of the Gilberts from the film
- Review and lists of cast and crew