Cast & Crew
In the 1700s, a beggar is tossed into London's Newgate jail, along with a pile of papers upon which his unfinished opera is scribbled. The beggar boasts to the other prisoners that his opera, unlike others of the day, is about a real person, the dashing highwayman Captain Macheath, who, dressed in a red coat, holds off the world with a pistol in each hand, seduces women with five notes of a tune, and generally leaps from misfortune. To the beggar's disappointment, the other prisoners point out that his hero Macheath is among them, in irons and behind bars, and Macheath, who is scheduled to be executed the next morning, admits that there is "no arguing with reality." Taking the first page of the opera, Macheath begins singing, and the beggar, encouraged by Macheath's good voice, urges him to continue, until the following story, the beggar's opera, is sung for the prison inmates: While riding to London, feeling merry and free, Macheath robs a carriage, and steals a kiss and a locket from a maiden. Later, in London, Macheath's wife, Polly Peachum, pines for him. Polly's parents, shopkeepers Mr. Peachum and his wife, are scandalized to learn from their employee Filch that Polly has secretly married the highwayman. To make the best of the situation, as they are always eager to make money, they urge her to lure Macheath into a trap and collect the reward for his capture. Meanwhile, outside of town, Macheath encounters a carriage ridden by Newgate's jailor Mr. Lockit, Lockit's daughter Lucy and Mrs. Trapes, whom Lockit is wooing. Lucy, who met Macheath when he was once imprisoned, scolds him for taking her virtue without making good on his promise to wed. When Macheath rides off, Mrs. Trapes suggests that Lucy betray him for the reward and give the money to her father. Later, during a tryst in a hayloft, Polly warns Macheath that her parents are mounting an ambush. Macheath escapes with Polly's help after a swashbuckling fight, then hides in a back room of a tavern, where he is unable to resist socializing with the prostitutes, whom he considers friends. However, prostitute Jenny Diver has been bribed by Peachum and Lockit to betray him, and with the help of her colleagues, Macheath is soon captured. From his jail cell, Macheath urges Lucy to steal the jail keys and set him free, promising to marry her in return, but then Polly shows up and he is forced to introduce the women to each other. During the night, Lucy steals the keys and releases him, but later Polly sneaks back and, finding Macheath gone from the cell, screams in anguish without thinking, thus drawing attention to his escape. Meanwhile, Macheath disguises himself in the stolen cape and gloves of a lord and slips into a gaming house to avoid making good his promise to unite with Lucy. However, the proprietor recognizes the cape and alerts Lockit and Peachum about the impostor wearing it. Back at the jail, Polly is accused of freeing Macheath and is locked in Lucy's room, where Lucy, after losing track of Macheath, attempts to drug her. When they hear the recaptured Macheath being returned to prison, Lucy and Polly proceed to Macheath's cell and demand that he choose between them. He refuses, as he will soon be hanged and sees no reason to disappoint either of them. The next morning, riding atop his coffin as it is carted through the streets to the gallows, Macheath waves farewell to the friendly crowd that has gathered to see him off. At the gallows, after kissing both Lucy and Polly goodbye, Macheath is blindfolded and awaits his fate, and the opera comes to its incomplete end. The real Macheath, who is still in the jail, protests that he should not have to hang twice. After pondering the complaint, the beggar agrees and yells for Macheath's reprieve. The rest of the prisoners join in the chant and mob the turnkey, who comes to investigate the ruckus, allowing Macheath to escape. The highwayman steals a horse from the cart containing his coffin and when safely out of London, sings that his freedom has been returned because of a beggar's opera.
H. C. Walton
William C. Andrews
Sir Arthur Bliss
J. D. Wilcox
The Beggar's Opera (1953)
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
The Beggar's Opera (1953)
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.