Warner Bros, 1953
Starring Lawrence Olivier, Dorothy Tutin, George Divine, and Stanley Holloway
Directed by Peter Brook
Music by John Gay; Lyrics by John Gay and Christopher Fry
The Beggar's Opera may be one of, if not the longest-lived musical (or "ballad opera") in the English language repertoire. It's original production debuted in 1728, an action-paced spoof of Italian opera with a roguish anti-hero highwayman who dodged the wealthy and romanced any woman he could find. Most people know it better today in the German version The Threepenny Opera, but the original still makes occasional appearances to this day. Brook was a British wunderkind, a stage musical director who made hits at a young age. This would be his first shot at a film, but he didn't see eye-to-eye with Olivier over how to play the leading man and ran over budget, and the film wound up being a flop. What happened? Let's head to Newgate Jail in London during the early 1700's and find out...
The Story: The Beggar (Hugh Griffith) is tossed into prison, his unfinished opera scattering around him. The opera revolves around the exploits of famous highwayman Macheath (Olivier), who just happens to be in the prison as well. He hands Macheath the notes, and discovering his voice isn't bad, insists he sing them his story...
Macheath was known for dashingly robbing the rich and romancing their wives. He was wed to pretty Polly Peacham (Tutin), who waits hopefully for his return. Her shocked parents insist on her setting a trap for him. He also has the heart of Lucy Lockit (Daphne Anderson), the daughter of the Newgate jailor Lockit (Holloway), who is still incensed he loved and left her without marrying her. Polly does help Macheath avoid her parents, but he has less luck with another former lover, prostitute Jenny Diver (Yvonne Furneaux), who with her friends turns him over to the police. He does manage to convince Lucy he loves her long enough to get her to help him escape, only to end up in prison again. This time, he may not have a happy ending...unless the Beggar and his friends can make it for him.
The Song and Dance: Dashing swashbuckler with Olivier in fine form as the roguish anti-hero Macheath. He's so charismatic and charming, you can almost overlook his shaky singing and dancing abilities. Love Anderson as the feisty jailer's daughter, too, and Holloway and Devine as the frustrated fathers who'd rather get the money than see their daughters married to a rogue. The Technicolor production ably recreates 1728 England, especially in the robust action sequences at the Peacham's farm and in the finale. Whatever else his faults were, Brook did do wonders with action and movement.
Favorite Number: "Let Us Take to the Road" is the opening number for England's many highwaymen as Macheath admits to his love of what he does. Jenny sings of "When Gold Is at Hand," while Lucy laments "How Cruel are the Traitors" after Macheath has left her a second time. Macheath wonders "How Happy I Could Be With Either" as he tries to decide between his favorite sweethearts towards the end.
What I Don't Like: Some of the effects, like the obvious green screen behind Macheath when he's riding off in the ending, don't look as good today as they probably did in 1953. Ironically, considering Olivier isn't the best singer in the world, most of the cast (besides Olivier and Stanley Holloway) were dubbed. (Although they did credit the singers in the end.) In fact, the theatrical artifice bumping against film realism doesn't always work well, especially in the stagy opening with the Beggar and his work. There's also the fact that this is an opera, and an older opera, at that. If you don't love opera or classical music, you may not be the right audience for this one (although it may help that it's a lot lighter in tone than Threepenny Opera).
The Big Finale: If you love Olivier, swashbucklers, or comic opera, you may want to track down this enjoyable, action-packed romp.
Home Media: On streaming, and on DVD from the Warner Archives.