Musical Monday: The Beggar’s Opera (1953)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
The Beggar’s Opera (1953) – Musical #656

beggar's opera

Studio:
British Lion
U.S. Distribution: Warner Bros.

Director:
Peter Brook

Starring:
Laurence Olivier, Hugh Griffith, George Rose, Dorothy Tutin, Mary Clare, Stanley Holloway, Eric Pohlmann

Plot:
A beggar (Griffith) is thrown in jail and is carrying an opera he’s writing about Captain Macheath, a dashing real-life character and highway robber who has multiple wives. The beggar meets the real Macheath (Olivier) in prison, who reads and sings the opera. The opera is told in a retrospective story of how Macheath ended up in jail.

Trivia:
• Laurence Olivier did his own singing. This was his only musical. Olivier and Stanley Holloway are the only two actors in the film who performed their own singing.
• Based on a 1728 opera by John Gay and Johann Christoph Pepusch.
• Feature film directorial debut of Peter Brook.

Highlights:
• Laurence Olivier’s singing
• Technicolor cinematography

Notable Songs:
I didn’t find any of the songs enjoyable, but Olivier’s singing was interesting.

beggar's opera2

My review:
“The Beggar’s Opera” is a unique film for a few reasons.

For starters, it is largely told in opera format; something that isn’t often performed on film (other examples are “The Tales of Hoffman,” 1951). Though it’s an opera, this film isn’t told entirely through singing, there is speaking dialogue to assist with the plot.

Another unique aspect of “The Beggar’s Opera” is that it is Laurence Olivier’s only musical, and truthfully, his singing is pretty good.

But unfortunately, these two bits of interest are all that make “The Beggar’s Opera” interesting. It’s more of a novelty film, and I found it to be boring.

And according to Olivier, making the film was a disaster.

Olivier wanted to perform his own singing and trained in New York City. But only Olivier and Stanley Holloway performed their own singing, while the rest of the cast opted to be dubbed by professional singers. In turn, this meant that Olivier and Holloway sounded like poor singers in comparison.

It was also director Peter Brock’s directorial debut, but Olivier was both the executive producer and the star, and called most of the shots.

Olivier called this film his “personal flop.” The critics agreed.

“A bold experiment which does not come off,” said C. A. Lejeune, film critic of The Observer. “The Beggar’s Opera is another example of the uneasy partnership between screen and opera. Olivier’s light baritone, pleasant enough in its own way, is no match for the others.”

Mercifully, this film was only an hour and a half, but that still felt too long. I didn’t find any of the songs terribly enjoyable and found the whole thing dull, but set in Technicolor.

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