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The Beggar's Opera

The Beggar's Opera(1953)

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The opening title cards read: "Laurence Olivier in The Beggar's Opera by John Gay." The onscreen credit for Christopher Fry reads: "Additional Dialogue and Lyrics." George Wakhevitch is credited onscreen for: "Opera Sets and Costumes." Cast credits conclude with a list of seven singers, who dubbed the major characters. Included on the list is Laurence Olivier, who made his singing debut in the role of "Macheath." Stanley Holloway and Edith Coates, two other singers on the list who also had roles in the film, May have also dubbed other characters. A December 1951 New York Times news item reported that John Gielgud had been set to play John Gay ("The Beggar"), and that Sadler's Wells Ballet would appear, choreographed by Ninette de Valois, but none of them worked on the film.
       John Gay's The Beggar's Opera is considered by many modern scholars to be the first example of a "ballad opera." Written in 1728, the opera was based on the story, "The Prison Break," and according to modern sources, John Pepusch May have arranged the music for Gay. More vernacular in subject matter than other operas of the day, ballad operas tended to satirize politics and the artificiality of popular Italian opera. The music for ballad operas consisted of preexisting tunes fitted with new lyrics, often in street dialect, and many of Gay's lyrics were set to lewd songs. Characters in Gay's works parodied real people. According to modern scholars, either the politician Horace Walpole or Jack Sheppard, an outlaw famous for escaping Newgate jail, inspired the character Macheath. "Polly" and "Lucy" were parodies of two popular rivaling eighteenth-century divas. Macheath's escape at the end of The Beggar's Opera mocked the operatic fashion to contrive a happy ending. The Beggar's Opera was immensely successful in England and Europe, remained popular over two centuries and influenced the development of the modern musical.
       For the film adaptation, British producer Herbert Wilcox and producer-actor Laurence Olivier recruited the highly respected stage and ballet director, Peter Brook. Wilcox and Olivier later realized that Brook's lack of film experience gave him a vision of the production that often conflicted with their own, and disagreements marred the project. According to modern sources, filming took place in the summer of 1952, but was delayed by a month after Olivier, who refused both a stand-in and vocal dubbing, injured his leg during a duel scene. Some modern sources claim that Brook wanted to make The Beggar's Opera and its scenes of swashbuckling fights and chases into an action film. Cameras were mounted on cars to ride alongside Olivier on horseback, as was done in Westerns. After several takes of riding up a hill, Olivier's horse died of a heart attack, according to modern sources. Although Jack Warner purchased the Western hemisphere distribution rights to the film from Alexander Korda, who profited from the deal, the production was a personal financial loss for both Wilcox and Olivier.
       The Beggar's Opera was first released in Great Britain in 1953. At its New York Baronet Theatre premiere, according to an August 1953 Daily Variety article, tea and crumpets were served as a publicity stunt. Reviewers were uneasy about the film's attempt to portray opera on celluloid. A November 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that the film "flopped" in Britain, explaining that its "high-brow" appeal was the reason for its early withdrawal from British theaters. The Film Daily review described the film as appropriate for art houses, but less critical was the New York Times review, which described a "generally happy liaison between film and opera," although "not an ideal marriage." Despite the criticism, several contemporary and modern sources applauded Brook's direction of crowd scenes, in particular, the scene in which Macheath is carted to the gallows through London streets. Olivier's singing efforts met with mixed reviews, as his pleasant, but untrained voice contrasted with the operatically trained voices of his colleagues. Reviews noted that sets were inspired by the work of William Hogarth (1697-1764), who illustrated many of the theater works of his day.
       Other films based on Gay's The Beggar's Opera include two 1931 releases, which were produced in Germany and France. The musical Three-Penny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht was also based on "The Prison Break," according to a modern source.