A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Beggar's Opera (Peter Brook, 1953)

The Beggar's Opera, Act V, by William Hogarth, c. 1728
I watch TV with the closed captions on, partly from age-related hearing loss, but also because it helps me savor dialogue better. Sometimes, however, I find that the caption writers go hilariously astray, especially if they're transcribing what they think they hear instead of following a script. In this case, I was amused to find that references to Newgate, the old London prison that is the scene of much of The Beggar's Opera, were being recorded as "Nougat." John Gay's 1728 ballad opera is said to have been inspired by a suggestion of Jonathan Swift that someone should compose "a Newgate pastoral among the thieves and whores there." Peter Brook's film, his first as a movie director, isn't exactly a "nougat pastoral," but it's a pleasant enough confection, with Technicolor cinematography by Guy Green and production design and handsome costuming by Georges Wakhévitch that give the film a Hogarthian ambiance. Best of all, it has Laurence Olivier, Hugh Griffith, Dorothy Tutin, Stanley Holloway, and Athene Seyler in the cast. Gay's songs, originally set to familiar folk song tunes, have been remusicalized by Arthur Bliss, with some additional lyrics by Christopher Fry, who also wrote the screenplay with Denis Cannan. Most of the singing was dubbed, with the exceptions of Olivier and Holloway: The latter nicely displays a basso buffo style and Olivier has a pleasant if sometimes slightly stressed baritone. The film was a flop, unfortunately, and isn't much seen today, but it's worth checking out when it comes around again to TCM.