`Threepenny' still shrewd investment


Biting 1931 satire returns to Charles

Cinema Sundays set

Film Column

January 03, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

This week the Charles' Saturday revival series features G.W. Pabst's stirring musical The Threepenny Opera (1931) -- a still-controversial production of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's adaptation of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera.

London's bandit leader, Mackie Messer (akaMacheath, aka Mackie the Knife) woos and weds beautiful, shrewd Polly Peachum. But Polly's father, Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who runs the city's legal begging business, is so outraged by Polly's marriage to the thief that he urges the police chief, Tiger Brown, to arrest Macheath and hang him. Luckily for Macheath, he and Tiger were Army buddies. The cop is concerned only with keeping things quiet for Coronation Day.

Pabst is just as withering as Brecht about the hypocrisy that accompanies wealth and status, but he condemns corruption and exploitation in terms that are more humanist than Marxist. He commissioned Brecht to write new closing lyrics that attack complacency: "We see those who live in the daytime. But not those who live in night."

Brecht and Weill protested the filmmakers' alterations of their 1928 stage version; Pabst and his scenarists -- Leo Lania, Bela Balasz and Ladislaus Vajda -- repositioned most of the tunes they didn't slash or cut.

But few movies have so vitally captured the allure of biting musical satire. In The Threepenny Opera, there's no split in tone between the dialogue scenes and the songs, as there is in Pennies from Heaven. The Street Singer, who croons the "Moritat of Mack the Knife," clarifies the action with sardonic summaries that take the place of Brecht's title cards.

Ernst Busch is haunting as the balladeer. Lotte Lenya as Mackie's favorite whore, Jennie, and Carola Neher as Polly are also standouts -- rueful, defiant, erotic and astringent. (Busch, Neher and, of course, Lenya, had all trained with Brecht.) Andrei Andreiev's sets and Fritz Arno Wagner's smoky-silvery cinematography help Pabst achieve a unifying (and influential) visual style: gutter rococo.

The movie plays tomorrow at noon. Admission: $5. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.thecharles.com.

Cinema Sundays

Cinema Sundays at the Charles kicks off its Winter 2003 season with The Hours. It's the screen adaptation of Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about three women of different eras -- a '50s housewife (Julianne Moore), a contemporary book editor (Meryl Streep) and Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) -- who grapple with despair. Woolf scholar Penny Cordish of Goucher College will introduce the movie and lead a discussion afterward.

Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Screening: 10:35 a.m. Admission: $15. Full-season memberships, which include tickets for all 10 screenings as well as discounts for city shops, restaurants and theaters, cost $110; mini-memberships, which cover five screenings and the consumer-benefits package, cost $65. Go to www.cinemasun days.com.

Black screen tests

Michael Eugene Johnson, founder of Heritage Shadows of the Silver Screen at 19-21 North Ave., has scheduled an ambitious program of fund-raising for his proposed Oscar Micheaux Research and Preservation Center. With the sole mission of saving "the history of the African-American in films," Johnson is organizing nine events for February, including Gospel Aid Weekend, Jazz Aid Weekend, Comic Relief Weekend, and Blues Aid Weekend on successive weekends. Call 410-468-0199 or log on to Soul film@aol.com.

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