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 quirky films that will probably be forgotten if it weren't for DVD, this one is worth getting.