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Thursday, September 2, 2010

THE BEGGAR’S OPERA (1953)

Superb. Phenomenally entertaining. Though a famous commercial flop upon release, and in a form (17th Century popular opera) that’s never going to appeal across the board, this marvelous film should long have established itself as a cult favorite, a kissin’ cousin to the musical pics of Powell/Pressburger. Now out in reasonably good condition on a Warner Archive DVD, there’s no excuse for missing it. It was the film debut of theatrical legend Peter Brooks, and you can tell he’s more comfortable staging action than editing it, but the decor, dialogue & performances more than compensate. Stateside, the Brecht/Weill 3-PENNY OPERA adaptation is better known than John Gay’s original, but it’s familiar enough for comfort. In this performing edition, the popular London airs Gay repurposed for his tawdry masterpiece have been vigorously adapted and slightly tamed by Arthur Bliss. It all sounds as if Handel had been asked to write OLIVER!, or, perhaps, a down-and-dirty Gilbert & Sullivan. MacHeath is our swashbuckling highwayman & lady killer, and the satire of society & theatrical convention still works beautifully. One exceptional bit has MacHeath about to walk into a trap, but saved because his wench insists on singing yet one more verse of farewell. It’s all been neatly structured as a musical performance set inside a prison. A conceit Brooks would repeat in MARAT/SADE/’66 and which MAN OF LA MANCHA would happily poach as well. But what really lights this film up is it’s wonderful cast. The ladies are lovely, bawdy, and gross, and the men are swine, hypocrites and dandies. Laurence Olivier, as a swashbuckling MacHeath, and Stanley Holloway, as Lockit, the jailer, are the only actors who do their own singing, and they do themselves proud. Just about everyone knows Holloway’s skills as a Music Hall stylist thanks to MY FAIR LADY, but even those who’ve relished his ‘Pooh Bah’ in the Groucho Marx version of THE MIKADO will be gob-smacked by his lower extension. The guy’s got a two and a half octave range. And Olivier, when he’s in his element, is truly an actor beyond compare. Who knew he possessed such a fine high baritone voice. And what a vocal production! Listen to the final line of the film as he lets loose with a stunning messa di voce singing ‘On an opera made byYYYYYYYY,’ than shouting joyously, ‘a Beggar!" It’s a moment fully worthy to stand with his ST. CRISPIAN’S DAY speech in the popular imagination of all actors manque. Along with his quietly devastating work the previous year in William Wyler’s CARRIE, this may be his greatest unheralded perf.

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