THE BOOTLEG FILES: “THE THREEPENNY OPERA”

“Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear, / And he shows them pearly white. / Just a jack-knife has Macheath, dear, / And he keeps it out of sight.” With these opening lyrics to “Mack the Knife,” the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill landmark musical “The Threepenny Opera” is launched on its sarcastic, cynical way. First staged in 1927, “The Threepenny Opera” can still provoke audiences with its bold indictment of social hypocrisy and its audacious challenges to the principles of musical theater.

Strangely, “The Threepenny Opera” has never enjoyed a truly satisfactory film adaptation. The first attempt, directed by G.W. Pabst in 1931, betrays the stagnant production values typical of the early sound cinema. Most of the songs were removed from that version, but mercifully among the surviving tunes was Lotte Lenya’s peerless rendition of “Pirate Jenny.” RKO Pictures bought the U.S. remake rights to the property, but changes in the Hollywood Production Code made it impossible for the studio to produce a film that celebrates prostitution, condemns law enforcement as corrupt, and makes a hero out of a pimp who is also a murderer and a bigamist.

In 1955, “The Threepenny Opera” had a smash Off-Broadway revival. By this time, liberal changes in the Hollywood censorship regulations logic would’ve dictated that an American film version could finally be made. However, Bertolt Brecht’s unapologetic Communist advocacy (he was living in East Berlin at the time) made it impossible for any Hollywood studio of that era to touch the property.

“The Threepenny Opera” finally came before the cameras again in 1962 when a German and French co-production announced plans to make a color film version that would retain most of the songs. The film was shot in Germany using the top German actors of the era: Curt Jurgens as the sly and sardonic Macheath, sultry Hildegarde Knef as the tough prostitute Jenny, and burly Gert Frobe (best known to Americans as the eponymous villain in “Goldfinger”) as the underworld lord Peachum.

Was this film any good? I have no idea, since I never saw the German-language version of this 1962 production. Nor did any American. Embassy Pictures obtained the rights to the film for the U.S. market, but rather than release the original German-language edition they decided to redub the entire film (dialogue and songs) into English. I am not certain who was responsible for this, but I suspect it was the same person who supervised the dubbing for the Godzilla movies.

Watching the American version of this film is among the most painful cinematic experiences imaginable. None of the new English-speaking voices fit the actors to which they’ve been assigned, and there is seemingly no effort to affect some degree of dialogue synchronization with the actors’ lips. Dialogue either continues after the actors cease speaking or concludes long before the actors reach the end of their lines. This is even worse during the musical numbers, which take on a dreadfully discombobulated state that it often seems an alien soundtrack was shoehorned into the film. Incredibly, the fabled “Pirate Jenny” number was cut from the U.S. release.

Adding to the chaos is Sammy Davis Jr., who was recruited to give the film an American edge. Davis’ scenes were shot in an empty Hollywood studio, in which he is first seen arriving to put on a shabby 19th century costume while announcing to the camera the start of the production. He then begins to sing the opening “Mack the Knife” while grinning at the camera, only to be interrupted by a cartoon cut-out of Mack doing a spry dance. Davis reappears at odd moments in the course of the action to look into the camera and comment on the scenes that he is disrupting with his irrelevant presence. At the end of the film, he announces we’ve reached the end of the film and he removes his costume, singing merrily while he exits the studio (perhaps to pick up his paycheck for such ridiculous work).

Why didn’t Embassy release “The Threepenny Opera” in its original German form? Clearly the distributor wanted to move beyond the very limited art house circuit and reach the neighborhood theaters with a non-subtitled movie that would appeal to American ears. Unfortunately, its dubbing was such a slop job that the film promptly disappeared after the briefest of releases.

Bootleg videos of “The Threepenny Opera” began to appear in the mid-1980s, but the visual quality of these offerings were horrible. The widescreen film was panned-and-scanned so haphazardly that the scene compositions were totally wrecked. The color prints used for these bootlegs were less than vibrant, making the film’s art direction look cheap and miserable. Anyone trying to watch “The Threepenny Opera” from bootlegs today will need to have a bottle of Visine on hand.

To date, the original German-language version of this film has never played in the United States. The lack of a proper commercial release for “The Threepenny Opera” may be tied to the poor reputation of its disastrous theatrical release and, perhaps, the problems in clearing the music rights for subsequent home video and DVD release. It is a shame, since there might be a fine movie in here if an effort was made to restore the soundtrack and frame the film properly.

As luck would have it, a third version of “The Threepenny Opera” was made in 1991 by Israeli schlockmeister Menachem Golan, who had a rare desire to create art. Theorizing that no one would see a film with the word “opera” in its title, Golan retitled the film “Mack the Knife.” Raul Julia, Richard Harris and Roger Daltrey headed the cast. The less said about that one, the better.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on February 6, 2004 in Features by
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