The Beggar's Opera (1953) Poster

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Great Musical, Even If It Is 280 Years Old
Terrell-427 September 2004
When this movie opened it scarcely caused a ripple in Britain and even less so in the U.S. I don't know why. It's a telling of John Gay's great work written in 1728, and the play was a blockbuster 280 years ago. It's supposed to be the first English "opera" that told a story through song and which was aimed to entertain the people. Gay took melodies wherever he found them, wrote lyrics to them to advance the storyline, and had a hit. And in another version, it still is. The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (with Blitzstein's redone lyrics) is a fixture in theaters, and Mack the Knife is still a popular song.

Lawrence Olivier plays Macheath, a rollicking highwayman with "wives" all over London. He has two in particular, Polly Peachum, the daughter of his fence, and Lucy Lockit, the daughter of his jailer. The story of Macheath's adventures, captures and escapes are all told in song. There are horse riding songs, love songs, gambling songs, longing songs, lustful songs. The story starts in a London prison where Macheath awaits hanging. A beggar just tossed into the prison has written an opera about Macheath. He starts to tell it to the inmates and the movie takes off.

The songs are great fun and the style of the movie is very much the look of 18th century London. You can feel the fleas in the wigs, the lice in the clothes, the sheen of greasy lips, the stink of unwashed bodies.

And there are some sharp lines. "A miser might as well be satisfied with one guinea as I with one wife." "Love is a misfortune that can happen even to an indiscreet girl." "I can tell by your kiss that your gin is excellent." And when pointing out that consummation needn't wait for marriage, "Friends should not insist on ceremony."

Olivier does a masterful job, handling his own stunts, horse work and, most bravely, his own singing. He's good. On the day of Macheath's hanging, he's carted out to the gallows, sitting jauntily on his casket. While a grim-faced preacher is screaming at him to repent, he's sweeping up wenches to kiss, downing tankards of ale held up to him, and making a little girl laugh while bouncing her on his knee. Olivier plays it with great verve.

And while there's not exactly a reprieve, there is a joyous escape.

If you like Olivier, if you like things British, if you like quirky films that will probably be forgotten, this is worth seeing.
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A thoroughly delightful spoof of movie musicals.
aad24 November 1998
John Gay's original Beggar's Opera was a spoof of the high-blown operas of his day. The Olivier film is a spoof of--movie musicals! Sir Laurence sings on horseback; people burst into arias at the worst possible time. The plot goes from the absurd to the absurd. However, if the viewer tries to see it "straight," she will be confused and put off. I don't know why this delightful film is not available on laserdisc or even videotape. Someone should dig it out of the vault and re-introduce it to the world.
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An enjoyable musical period piece
Rosabel28 June 1999
This is a wonderfully odd movie, with Laurence Olivier doing his own singing in a film version of the first English musical ever written. The cinematography is very attractive, with the characters dressed in bright primary colours - the scene near the beginning with Macheath galloping through the countryside, the camera following alongside, turns into an exhilarating blur of flashing red coat, brown horse and greenery. The music and singing continue nonstop throughout the movie - it was originally written as a mock opera, and there is no attempt to update or adapt it for modern tastes. As such, it takes a bit of getting used to, but for those who can get into the 18th-century spirit of things, it is a very enjoyable experience.
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The one Powell and Pressburger didn't make
jandesimpson23 October 2005
The sad fact about "The Beggar's Opera" is that it wasn't directed by Powell and Pressburger. If this had been the case it would no doubt be lauded today as an eccentric masterpiece. It shared the same fate of critical disdain in its time as "Gone to Earth" and "The Elusive Pimpernel" but, unlike these, has still to await an appreciative resurrection. Could it be that it was made by the comparatively little known Peter Brook! And yet with its colourful visual flair and sometimes breathtaking sense of movement it seems right out of the same stable as "The Tales of Hoffmann" and "Oh Rosalinda!". A wonderfully imaginative shot of the landscape viewed from the scaffold gradually blacked out as the prisoner's blindfold is lowered over MacHeath's eyes is perhaps the best example of its inventiveness. For the musical purist it is inevitably something of a curiosity. A fine cast of contemporary singers including Adele Leigh, Jennifer Vyvyan and Edith Coates were assembled to dub the acting cast for the musical numbers, whereas the main role of MacHeath was sung by Laurence Oliver himself, his light baritone voice, although no match for the others, at least serviceable. But, as it works perfectly well, why quibble. (I have little time for those who criticised the "amateur" voices of Woody Allen's delicious musical "Everyone Says I Love You" as they so matched the characters and were not in the least, as has been suggested, unmusical). I watched "The Beggar's Opera" again the other day after a gap of over 50 years and found it just as refreshing. One of the reasons is that many of the tunes are terrific and not one of them goes on for too long. Generally I have to confess that I have little time for filmed musicals. I invariably want the songs to be got over as quickly as possible in order to get on with the action, which I know completely misses the point. With "The Beggar's Opera" I find the reverse to be true, just about resisting the temptation to fast-forward the dialogue to get to the next "tune". Sir Arthur Bliss did a wonderful job of arranging the music specially for the film version although it has to be admitted that the sound quality of the copy transmitted on Sky's Artsworld channel was often muddy and unclear. Would that the soundtrack could be remastered!
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Better than nothing
alan-morton10 September 2004
The Beggar's Opera has so much going for it. The author, John Gay placed it squarely in an underworld of thieves, whores, liars, drunkards, double-crossers, and corrupt officials. He gave them a witty voice, where moral values are reversed, and most importantly he gave them newly worded songs set to recent popular tunes.

The Beggar's Opera continues to be an important work, that has been raided by later writers; most importantly by Brecht who adapted its main elements as The Threepenny Opera; and also by writers such as Dennis Potter (Pennies From Heaven clearly borrows heavily from from The Beggar's Opera, down to the final twist).

This is a film that should work well as a film-of-the-stage, for there is always a sense that the characters are trapped in their little world, in each other's pocket, and all knowing each other's business. But Peter Brook tries to make the film more cinematic by opening the action out in places. Though this is understandable, it entails some unfortunate compromises. The attempt to inject some new life into this film, with primarily visual scenes and a bit of derring-do action, means that Brook is forced to cut the text severely in places, and the strength of the piece lies in the words Gay wrote, not in the pictures that Brook creates. The film works well where the original text survives and the characters are allowed to speak, but that happens rarely. And Brook also messes about with the twist-ending!

In brief, enough survives of the original to make it worth watching, if there's no better alternative.
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Satire of a Bawdy Age
bkoganbing18 August 2006
Sir Laurence Olivier expressed a great deal of disappointment with the way The Beggar's Opera finally turned out. On reflection he probably would have done it as a straight dramatic play. Certainly the role of the swaggering outlaw Captain Macheath would seem to be a choice part.

Olivier had sung before on screen, in Fire Over England he warbled an old English ditty There Was a Spanish Lady Who Wooed an English Man and did very well by it in his portrayal of Michael Ingolby in that film. But the problem is that in Fire Over England he was the only one singing. Later on he did very well in The Entertainer as song and dance man Archie Rice. But in The Beggar's Opera his voice suffers by comparison to the trained voices that were dubbed for all the other players except Olivier and Stanley Holloway.

I guess producer Herbert Wilcox felt he couldn't dub voices as known as Olivier and Holloway. But Holloway was a musical performer so he didn't suffer by comparison.

The Beggar's Opera has been argued to be the first musical play done in the English language. John Gay wrote the book and lyrics and the music is taken from old English tunes and arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch. It's a satire of the corrupt and bawdy age of Robert Walpole, King George I's Prime Minister and the first person to be actually called by that title.

The Age of Walpole began with the end of War of Spanish Succession and the death of Queen Anne and the Hanover succession secured. Robert Walpole had some very simple ideas on what was best for the United Kingdom. Everybody make money, eat, drink and be merry, secure good trade deals and keep out of war at all costs. You could buy anything during his time, including honor and justice. Merchant Peachum played by George Devine is a caricature of Walpole. A most greedy man who'll do anything for a pound.

Macheath knows the people he's dealing and he does it on their own terms. He gets arrested for rewards, he buys a reprieve. It really did work that way back in Walpole's time.

And he's romancing two women, Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit although the women use him as much as he uses them. Lucy's dad is Stanley Holloway the jailkeeper who's not above a bribe or two from prisoners able to pay.

The Beggar's Opera got a Teutonic remake when Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht did The Threepenny Opera in the last century and the immortal Mack the Knife comes from it.

Still if The Beggar's Opera was to be done in its original form, wouldn't it have been far better to have a group like the D'Oyly Carte Light Opera Company who do so well with Gilbert and Sullivan do this instead of straight players who have to be dubbed?
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Compenent Version of Classic Ballad Opera
adamshl1 December 2010
While this is an adequate rendering of the famous John Gay mock opera, it suffers from having Olivier sing the entire role in his own untrained voice. After a while his vocalism grows wearisome, having a slight flat and dull quality to his tone.

Brook's direction is also lacking; in trying to open the action up on screen, it looks somewhat forced and off balance. This is still a good film, all things considered and the fact that it's a rare filming of this work.

So in the end we give it a grade of B, and hope a better version will subsequently be made.
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Intriguing and entertaining
TheLittleSongbird3 July 2017
As was said in my review for the 1963 production of the Britten version, John Gay's ballad/satirical opera 'The Beggar's Opera' is a lot of fun and it is no wonder it's popular with most, the dialogue, music and characters are all great. Benjamin Britten's radically different but enormously enjoyable and melodious, an ingenious and often brilliant modern re-imagining that shows the composer's individual treatment of folk-songs, version is also well worth it as well.

This 1953 film may not be completely ideal, but it is still intriguing and entertaining with a good deal to like. Occasionally, some of the dialogue loses impact when director Peter Brook tries to open up the action. While there are wonderful, imaginative visuals, Brook's directorial inexperience shows with some of the drama a bit undistinguished and stagy.

However, 'The Beggar's Opera' (1953) is a very handsome-looking film, with stylish production and costume design and some imaginative photography that succeeds in opening up the action. The music is a superb mix of rousing fun and heartfelt nuance. Most of the dialogue crackles with sharp wit and avoids being too wordy.

Most of the story absorbs and is lively in pacing, with the action being just about easy to follow and the twist is well executed.

Laurence Olivier may not have the best singing voice there is, but has charismatic swagger and energy aplenty. Hugh Griffith, Dorothy Tutin, George Devine and Stanley Holloway give him strong support.

All in all, intriguing and entertaining if not the most ideal version. 7/10 Bethany Cox
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Mack the Knife
stherrien00119 February 2005
This was a very enjoyable movie especially if you like period pieces and/or musicals. Hearing Laurence Olivier sing is reason enough to watch this. The cinematography is outstanding and the movie as a whole is very colorful.

Obviously, the song "Mack the Knife" made famous by Bobby Darin, Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra is based on this opera/movie. MacHeath is in the opera/movie as is Jenny Diver and Sukey Tawdrey. Louie Miller, Lotte Lenya and Lucy Brown are mentioned in the song (and not in the opera/movie) but, after all, MacHeath was a notorious highwayman and ladies' man.
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A spirited man faces the gallows
evening128 April 2013
Warning: Spoilers
I enjoyed this portrait of a roguish robber who enjoyed life with no thought to who he was hurting -- least of all himself.

Laurence Olivier shows off an excellent singing voice -- what couldn't this master performer achieve? -- and charisma to spare as he seems an everyman's hero.

His farewell kiss to dueling sweethearts is powerful, and the death scene shattering. Or is it...really?

I'm not too proud to admit I tuned in to this on TCM because I wanted to hear "Mack the Knife," but I guess that rousing song comes from some other version of the 18th-century John Gay work.

This production is a little reminiscent of the recent musical "Les Miserables," in that it creates a convincingly detailed portrait of city life ages ago. For that in itself it deserves a bravo.
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