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The Beggar's Opera is most often mentioned as a postscript behind Weill and Pabst's The ThreePenny Opera, so much so that Laurence Olivier's Technicolor musical is dismissed as a vanity production. The first directing effort of theater great Peter Brook (Lord of the Flies, Marat/Sade), the 1953 The Beggar's Opera may not be revolutionary cinema on the order of Powell & Pressburger, but it's consistently lively, funny and entertaining. As a musical, it's a truly unique item.
It's important to know that John Gay's 1728 opera was written as a wicked spoof of Italian operettas. The music consists of popular ballads, many of them on the bawdy side. Instead of romance and tragedy among the nobles, the story focuses on the lowest of the low in Newgate Prison. The wealthy are irredeemably corrupt and right proud of their various rackets. The poor do the same thing on a smaller scale, but are much more likely to be punished for their offenses. Supposedly respectable people like the Peachums behave in a despicable manner, while the female denizens of a house of prostitution comport themselves as regular ladies. At the center of the intrigues is the romanticized highwayman MacHeath, a smiling knave in a red coat. Instead of cutting throats, MacHeath delicately robs the rich, while stealing kisses from their appreciative ladies.
Denis Cannan and Christopher Fry's screenplay adapts a tale that had already been reinterpreted dozens of times for the stage. Finally caught, MacHeath (Olivier, working hard at the gallant rogue act) spends the last night before his hanging in Newgate, listening to an opera composed by another inmate, the Beggar of the title (Hugh Griffith). In the idealized version of MacHeath's adventures, we see him dallying with the beautiful Polly Peachum (Dorothy Tutin). When Polly's crooked parents (George Devine & Mary Clare) find out about their secret son-in-law, they decide that turning him in for the price on his head is a great idea. Father Peachum connives to lay a trap with the master of Newgate Prison, Mr. Lockit (Stanley Holloway of My Fair Lady). After several failed attempts, the bandit is captured when the bar girls Suky Tawdry (Sandra Dorne) and Jenny Diver (Yvonne Furneaux of The Mummy) betray him.
Locked away, MacHeath renews his romance with Lockit's luscious daughter Lucy (Daphne Anderson), and promises to marry her if she'll purloin the turnkey's keys for him. But the plan goes awry with a visit from Polly -- neither woman knows about the other. When MacHeath does get free, he heads straight for a gambling salon run by the crafty Mrs. Trapes (Athene Seyler). Unfortunately, she's also a crony of Mr. Lockit, and the law closes in again.
Back in the present in Newgate, MacHeath is impressed by his image in the Beggar's play ... but how will he escape his execution in the morning?
The Beggar's Opera has color, fun characters, witty dialogue and beautiful women. Although many of the players' singing voices are dubbed, Olivier is not and sounds just fine. The songs are delivered in grand style and fit the characters well. MacHeath sings about the impossibility of confining his amorous talents to just one woman, while Jenny and Lucy's songs run to flights of romance. Women naturally project their desires onto the ne'er-do-well MacHeath, who is more than willing to take advantage of such illusions. Meanwhile, no matter where MacHeath turns, the pair keeps showing up, with more constables and a pistol in each hand. George Devine and Stanley Holloway share a fine time congratulating each other on their profitable partnership -- in one impressive scene they serve and consume a meal, while singing.
Director Brook's active blocking keeps the film frame moving, with help from the rich Technicolor cinematography of Guy Green. The vibrant costume design is just as naturalistic as the later Tom Jones, but the film's action staging is first-rate. This was surely Laurence Olivier's opportunity to play the same kind of fun characters that Errol Flynn did, and he looks like he's having a fine time. All that's lacking is Flynn's effortless acting. As in all of his films, Olivier's acting process is all too visible -- he's working too hard.
Dorothy Tutin (The Importance of Being Earnest) is delightful as Polly Peachum; we should be grateful that the stage actress left us these movie performances. Daphne Anderson (Hobson's Choice, A Kid for Two Farthings) plays more of a firebrand, a feisty but foolish dame repeatedly taken in by MacHeath's appeal. By contrast, Yvonne Furneaux looks dreamily exotic with her purple eyes and faraway stare, but is a different kind of woman -- she knows she's poison.
The Beggar's Opera uses a number of photochemical traveling matte shots, executed long before the process was perfected. As in The African Queen, some composites have rough matte lines and odd lighting values -- some views of Lucy Lockit on the back of a cart render her green bonnet partially transparent. Yet many other shots are almost perfect.
For modern audiences The Beggar's Opera perhaps needs too much of an explanatory setup; British critics trounced it when it was new, which didn't help it either. There's a lot to appreciate and enjoy in this beautifully staged comedy/action musical. In terms of filmic and stage technique, most new musicals have (by comparison) reverted back to the Stone Age. Good musicals don't grow on trees -- this one is worth checking out.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of The Beggar's Opera is a very good disc of this original Technicolor show; the film composite used for transfer looks excellent about 90% of the time. Faces are a bit washed out in a scene or two, and brief scratches show up, and that's it.
The only drawback is the lack of English subtitles, which would have really helped. Most crucial dialogue is very clear but some speeches and lyrics can be difficult to pick out of the lively audio track.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Beggar's Opera rates:
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