The astonishing Die Dreigroschenoper opened in Berlin in 1928 and quickly swept across the continent. Coming at the beginning of the talking picture/movie musical era, the film rights were quickly swept up. (When the musical finally reached Broadway's fabled Empire Theatre in 1933, as The Threepenny Opera, it fizzled after a mere 12 performances.)
Georg C. Pabst — who in 1928 had directed Louise Brooks in "Pandora's Box" — filmed Brecht & Weill's The 3 Penny Opera [Criterion] in 1931. Or maybe not Brecht & Weill's, exactly; this is more like Pabst's own rendition, with some severe changes from the stage version. Much of the dialogue is gone, and the plot takes a turn that is nothing like what happens in the stage version. The music is cut down, too. Even so, it is quite a film, giving us a better feeling of the piece than the stage versions I've seen. Here comes Macheath in the person of Rudolf Forster, looking and acting just like we'd always imagined. (Am I alone in finding a resemblance to Flo Ziegfeld?) Carola Neher, German-born wife of Brecht collaborator Caspar Neher, does wonderfully well as Polly; an avowed Communist, she died in a Soviet prison camp in 1942 at the age of 41. From the vantage point of today, the film does us a great favor by preserving Lotte Lenya's stage performance as Jenny. There she is, looking and sounding like a very different Lenya than we might imagine. Jenny is a small role, relatively speaking, but watch Lenya sing "Pirate Jenny," standing static in front of a window in the bordello. This is the Lenya of the first act of LoveMusik, by the way, and she is unforgettable here.
Pabst's "3 Penny" has long been disparaged for a variety of reasons; the print I saw, years ago, was unimpressive. The restoration makes clear that this is an extraordinary film, which fits right in with the gems of the early German cinema. The two-disc set is loaded with fascinating extras, as is usual with Criterion. Along with interviews and documentary examinations, they include "L'opéra de quant'sous," the French-language version that Pabst filmed simultaneously on the same sets. Yes, it is interesting to see the same film with different actors, but the French version doesn't begin to compare with the German. Lest anyone be interested, the one-named Florelle — who plays Polly — went on to create the title role in Weill's 1934 Paris musical, Marie Galante.
Threepenny Opera purists might carp at the departures from Brecht; but I dare say that these departures have made it a far finer film than it would be otherwise. As someone who finds stage performances of the piece inevitably bogged down by the librettist, I welcome Pabst's treatment. And while Weill's score is correspondingly withered, what's there works perfectly and makes the composer look very good indeed. *
"Let's put on a show!" That was the sentiment behind the four Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musical film hits produced at M-G-M from 1939 to 1943. Fans of the pair have long been waiting for these titles — "Babes in Arms," "Strike up the Band," "Babes on Broadway" and "Girl Crazy" — to make it to DVD. Now they have finally arrived in the Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collector's Edition, part of the Warner Home Video Ultimate Collector's Edition series.
Ultimate Collector's Edition indeed. The films are gloriously present and restored in the manner that we have become accustomed to. "Babes in Arms," the first of the series, even has re-inserted the segment with impersonations of the Roosevelts, which was deleted after the death of the president. (There is also a blackface segment, which passed for popular entertainment at the time.) This film has little to do with the 1937 Rodgers & Hart stage musical of the same title, retaining only two of the Rodgers & Hart songs. They do, however, give us "God's Country" from Hooray for What! — the show which earned Arlen & Harburg the "Wizard of Oz" assignment. "Strike up the Band" has even less to do with the Gershwin-Kaufman-Ryskind musical of 1930, merely borrowing the title song for a grand finale. ("Girl Crazy," the second film version of the other 1930 Gershwin musical, does bear a passing resemblance to its forbear, retaining six of the songhits.) The third film of the series, "Babes on Broadway," was an original — although original is perhaps not the best way to describe the plot about a couple of teenagers who get together, yes, to put on a show. This one has perhaps the best written-for-Hollywood song of the series, Burton Lane and Ralph Freed's "How About You?" That's the one that goes, "I like New York in June. . . I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?" Pretty nifty songwriting.
The four films, which are not being sold individually, are contained in a handsome box set; also included is a fascinating and nicely-illustrated hardcover guide written by John Fricke, who also provides commentary for two of the films. They also give us a packet of photo postcards. Features include vintage comedy shorts, cartoons, trailers, and audio-only radio broadcasts. Mickey Rooney himself — who turned 87 last month — is on hand, in person, to introduce each of the films. And yes, he does look older than when he made the movies. The fifth DVD in the box includes a 1996 TCM special, "Private Screenings with Mickey Rooney," hosted by Robert Osborne. Of most interest to Garland fans, perhaps, is what they call "The Judy Garland Songbook." Here you have an assortment of 21 complete numbers as performed in the original films, sort of a one-person "That's Entertainment." This is like putting on a compilation CD, except you get it with sets, costumes and visuals of Judy. Who, indeed, displays the changes wrought by the passing of time as she goes from ages 14 to 42.
Walt Disney's The Jungle Book [Disney] has now been given the Platinum treatment, coming to us in a clean and colorful, 40th Anniversary edition. This was the last Disney movie from Walt himself; the master magician died in December 1966, ten months before "The Jungle Book" was released.
The songs are mostly from the Sherman Brothers, Richard and Robert, midway between the film "Mary Poppins" and Broadway's Over Here! While they are pleasant enough, none are especially memorable. "The Jungle Book" is remembered by many, mainly, for that rambunctiously delightful "Bare Necessities." But that's not from the Shermans; it was written by one Terry Gilkyson. As performed by Phil Harris, it is indeed pretty special. Also in the cast of voices are Sterling Holloway, Sebastian Cabot and George Sanders.
I must admit that I was never overwhelmed by "The Jungle Book," which I find far less involving than Disney gems like "Snow White" and "Dumbo." Still, it is a great favorite of many, and the new, feature-filled release is certainly worth a look for fans of the film and fans of the genre.
Rounding out this month's offerings — last but not least, as they say — comes Funny Face [Paramount]. This is the big M-G-M musical that wasn't. With the house of Louis B. Mayer slowing down on the musical front (if you can call "Gigi" slowing down), Fred Astaire, Stanley Donen and Roger Edens went over to Paramount for this 1957 effort. There they met up with Audrey Hepburn, who in her third major American film took star billing over Astaire. Hepburn was originally trained as a dancer — her first paying job seems to have been as a 19-year-old chorus girl in the 1948 London production of High Button Shoes — so she more than holds her own with that grand old man, Fred.
Even so, there is something jarring about this romantic pairing. Fred was 30 years older than Audrey, but she looked relatively younger than her age — 27 at the time of the film's release — while he looked rather older; that first kiss, on a bookseller's ladder, is almost creepy. (No wonder she looks surprised!) In one scene, where Fred and co-star Kay Thompson go to rescue the young star from a handsome, existentialist rake, they seem old enough to be Audrey's grandparents. But all that is neither here nor there. This is one of those not-so-original stories about a mousy Cinderella going to Paris and finding love and beautiful clothes; with Fred Astaire (or Gene Kelly) as the guy and songs borrowed from the catalog of the Gershwins (or one of their peers), you've pretty much seen it before. What rescues "Funny Face," and makes it so fascinatingly watchable, is the vision. Not so much because the man-and-the-mouse in this case are a photographer and a model, but because Richard Avedon was onboard. His billing was "special visual consultant." In practice, he seems not only to have taken the many fashion shots that are featured in the film — including that striking open-faced shot of Hepburn that was used both on screen and as advertising — but helped map out a lot of the sequences. (The Astaire character was apparently modeled after Avedon, though Richard had considerably more hair.) There is also a color sense in the design that makes the film a remarkable bouquet. You have only to look at "Think Pink" — one of the several non-Gershwin songs that Edens wrote with scenarist Leonard Gershe — to make this DVD more than worth the purchase price. Add in Audrey's "beatnik ballet" section, and you've got a double bonus.
Which leaves us with Kay Thompson. After a long career on the M-G-M music staff — she was one of the finest vocal arrangers of the mid-century — Thompson was given the No. 3 on-screen slot in "Funny Face." Here she is in 1957, just approaching her 50th birthday, in her first and only major screen role — and she is so dynamic that you can't take your eyes off her. She sings, naturally enough; she dances, pretty well; and her line readings seem to be a combination of Eve Arden and Roz Russell. The woman is unbeatable; put her onscreen with Fred and Audrey, and Kay pulls the attention. After which she all but disappeared from Hollywood, suddenly flush from a little children's book she wrote in 1956 called "Eloise." If "Funny Face" is one of the few tangible records of Thompson as a performer, it certainly establishes her credentials.
"Funny Face" is based on the 1927 musical comedy of the same title, with songs by the Gershwins. This was a mess of a show; it practically shuttered out of town, at which point they changed the title (from Smarty) and fired the librettist (one Robert Benchley). They managed to turn the thing into a hit — it served as opening attraction at the Alvin (now Neil Simon) Theatre — but the film has nothing to do with the musical other than the use of several songs. And the same leading man, in Mr. Astaire. It is nice to hear how well these songs work in context; one is especially struck by Ira Gershwin's well-crafted lyrics. All in all, "Funny Face" (despite some plot holes and that grandfatherly romance) is pretty much — to quote Ira — s'wonderful.
(Steven Suskin is author of "Second Act Trouble," "Show Tunes," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)