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By the early 1950s, Laurence Olivier had conquered the stage and screen in London and in Hollywood, in classical and popular roles. Widely regarded as one of the great actors in both mediums, he won a best actor Academy Award in 1948 for his Hamlet, which he also directed, and in 1947 he was honored with a knighthood. It seemed that Olivier had no more worlds left to conquer, but in 1953, he took on a new challenge: starring in his first film musical, The Beggar's Opera.
Of course, since it was Olivier, it was not just any musical, but one with an impressive pedigree. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, written in 1728, is considered the first "ballad opera," a British satirical musical play with spoken dialogue and songs in the popular style. The songs in ballad operas usually poked fun at the conventions of grand opera, and the lyrics were often set to existing popular tunes. The story of the dashing highwayman MacHeath and his many loves had survived the centuries, and was also the basis for Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill's 1928 German musical, The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper), which produced the memorable song "Mack the Knife."
British wunderkind Peter Brook, who had begun his theatrical directing career while still in his teens, was known for his innovative staging. He was in his late 20s when he made his film directing debut with Herbert Wilcox's production of The Beggar's Opera. In his memoir, Confessions of an Actor (1982), Olivier recalled that Brook had approached him with the offer to play MacHeath, and Olivier was intrigued by the challenge. He began taking singing lessons while appearing onstage in New York, and made a recording of some of the songs from The Beggar's Opera, which he sent to Brook. The director was enthusiastic, and Olivier agreed to star in the film.
Wilcox, a veteran producer of stage and screen musicals, was delighted that Olivier was on board, and according to Olivier, suggested that he co-produce as well. "We both felt as this was to be Peter Brook's first picture, it would be wise to have a strong producer to answer to," Olivier recalled. Brook biographer Michael Kustow claims that it was Olivier who "insisted that he be made co-producer," and that Brook had actually wanted the then-unknown Richard Burton to play MacHeath, but Wilcox responded to Brook's suggestion with a telegram that read "This man will never make it, even as an extra." However Olivier's dual role came about, he soon realized it was a mistake. "The position of a director who has less authority than his leading man is a rotten one, and poor Peter had an utterly miserable experience," he admitted in his memoirs.
Director and star were in constant conflict about how Macheath should be played. Brook wanted a realistic portrayal, while Olivier opted for a dashing swashbuckler style. The tension between them was so great that investors urged Wilcox to replace one or the other. Instead, Wilcox urged Olivier to do things Brook's way. A series of freak accidents slowed down production. Olivier, performing his own stunts, rode his horse so hard that it dropped dead under him. Jumping on a table during a swordfight, the star fell and tore a calf muscle, putting him out of commission for weeks. Disheartened, he was certain the film was a disaster.
A bigger problem was that the singing voices of most of the actors were dubbed by professional singers. Only Olivier and Stanley Holloway, who played Lockit, did their own singing, and Holloway had begun his career as a singer (he later won an Oscar for playing Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady, 1964). Olivier's pleasant but untrained voice was not as expert as the dubbed singing of the other actors, and the critics noticed. The film was, according to Kustow, "a prestigious flop," and Brook did not direct another film for years. "There is little satisfaction in being right in prognosticating a failure when it happens to be one's own. I just hope and pray that my personal flop in The Beggar's Opera will be worst that I shall ever disenjoy," Olivier later wrote.
While The Beggar's Opera was a commercial disaster, the reviews were not as bad as Olivier remembered. Although the Variety critic called it "A bold experiment which does not come off....an example of the uneasy partnership between film and opera," and noted that Olivier's voice "is no match for the other voices," the critic added, "his performance is as robust and lively as could be expected." Variety also had praise for Brook's handling of the crowd scenes. Archer Winsten of the New York Times agreed, saying "It is a generally happy liaison and one that does credit to both media....It has movement and authentic color, attributes missing from most filmed opera." He too expressed reservations about Olivier's singing, but lauded his acting. "It is a characterization that he endows with genuine abandon, stature and feeling."
Eight years after The Beggar's Opera opened, Pauline Kael remembered it fondly, calling it "more fun than any other neglected movie of the past decade," and praised both Olivier and Brook. "Most movie directors attempt to conceal their artifice in a realistic surface; here, artifice is used with the carefree delight and audacity of early Douglas Fairbanks films-delight in the film medium." Of Olivier's performance she wrote, "His MacHeath is a brilliant caricature of the romantic bandit....his exuberance-his joy in the role-leaps through this whole production." Seen today, the film's satiric edge and stylish irreverence make it seem quite modern.
The director and star of The Beggar's Opera worked together amicably in 1955 and 1957, when Brook directed Olivier in Titus Andronicus for the Royal Shakespeare Company. And Oliver used his imperfect singing voice again on film, very effectively, as the seedy music hall performer in The Entertainer (1960). That performance earned him an Oscar nomination.
Producers: Herbert Wilcox, Laurence Olivier
Director: Peter Brook
Screenplay: Dennis Cannan, additional dialogue by Christopher Fry
Cinematography: Guy Green
Editor: Reginald Beck
Costume Design: George Wakhevitch
Art Direction: William C. Andrews
Music: John Gay, Sir Arthur Bliss, additional lyrics by Christopher Fry
Principal Cast: Laurence Olivier (Captain MacHeath), Hugh Griffith (The Beggar), Dorothy Tutin (Polly Peachum), George Devine (Peachum), Mary Clare (Mrs. Peachum), Stanley Holloway (Lockit), Daphne Anderson (Lucy Lockit), Yvonne Furneaux (Jenny Diver), Athene Seyler (Mrs. Trapes).
by Margarita Landazuri