"Mack the Knife"
In 1928 Berlin, an operetta titled Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) was staged, and one of the main characters was named Mackie Messer. In 1954, an English-language version of The Threepenny Opera was mounted in New York, in which that character was called Mack the Knife (the German word Messer means knife). The original production had a song about Mackie Messer's crimes that for American audiences was translated into the English-language "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." Eventually, several pop singers recorded renditions of that song under the shortened title "Mack the Knife," the most famous of which was Bobby Darin's up-tempo version released in 1959.
Darin's lyrics include a list of women who are lining up to spend time with Mack the Knife, and one of them is named Lotte Lenya. Actually, Lotte Lenya (1898-1981) was the actress-singer who originated the role of Jenny in both the 1928 Berlin and 1954 New York stage productions of the operetta. Also, she was married (twice) to Kurt Weill, the composer who created the music for Die Dreigroschenoper. In mentioning Lenya in "Mack the Knife," Darin was following an earlier recording by Louis Armstrong.
In the 1980s, McDonald's launched the Mac Tonight advertising campaign, in which a Vegas-style singer crooned words to the "Mack the Knife" melody urging people to eat their evening meal at one of the hamburger giant's outlets. There's irony here: Bertolt Brecht, the driving creative force behind Die Dreigroschenoper, was a lifelong Marxist who intended the work to be anti-capitalism.
Brecht, Weill and Pabst
Bertolt Brecht was a German dramatist who wrote many plays, a few of which, including Galileo, Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, are still performed. He also set forth a number of avant-garde ideas that remain influential among theater professionals. But his aesthetic theories were bound up with his politics: he strove to develop the drama as a social and ideological forum for leftist causes.
In 1928 when Brecht was 30 years old, he achieved the greatest popular success of his career when he shaped a German translation of John Gay's 1728 English-language The Beggar's Opera into Die Dreigroschenoper. Brecht recruited young composer Kurt Weill to score the new operetta, and his entertaining music turned out to be a huge factor in its popularity. Weill, whose oeuvre encompassed both symphonic works and musical theater, later moved to the United States and won a Tony Award for his score for Street Scene.
Die Dreigroschenoper was a big hit on the Berlin stage, and in 1930 a movie company began the process of adapting it for the screen. The film director was G.W. Pabst, whose movies were among the most artistically successful during the 1920s, including Joyless Street with Greta Garbo and Pandora's Box with Louise Brooks. Pabst's films are marked by social and political concerns, which made him a good fit for the Brecht-Weill material and helped him to add the proper visual dimension. The movie version of Die Dreigroschenoper, which was released in 1931, is a masterpiece.
Story and Music in the German-Language Film
The story takes place in a fictionalized London, and the time frame, although deliberately muddled, is roughly 1900. What's important is that the setting is a city beset by poverty, crime and corruption.
One of the main characters is Peachum (Fritz Rasp), who runs a protection racket. Beggars must pay him to obtain a license, and it's implied that Peachum has goons who will punish anyone caught begging without one of his licenses. The establishment turns a blind eye to Peachum's illegal operation, but he's expected to keep the beggars in line.
Another key character is Mackie Messer (Rudolf Forster), the crime boss of a gang specializing in robbery. The incident that sets the plot in motion is Mackie's marriage to Peachum's daughter Polly (Carola Neher). Incensed by his daughter's choice of husband, Peachum pressures Chief of Police Tiger Brown (Reinhold Schünzel) to hang Mackie. Brown and Mackie are longtime pals, but Peachum has leverage: he can loose a horde of beggars at the queen's coronation, ruining the event and costing Brown his cushy job.
Nine songs are sung in the film, and they take up a total of about 28 minutes. One of the highlights is the Street Singer doing "The Ballad of Mack the Knife." Another is when Jenny (Lotte Lenya) performs "Pirate Jenny" at the brothel. As the movie winds down, Mackie and Tiger Brown sing a duet, the "Cannon Song," about being in the army in India, where people of an unfamiliar race might be chopped up to make steak tartare.
An Informative Documentary
The Criterion Collection DVD set provides a top-notch 49-minute documentary titled "Brecht vs. Pabst,” which traces The Threepenny Opera from stage to film to lawsuits. This includes archival photos and interviews with experts on Brecht, Weill and Pabst, as well as input from Pabst's son.
There's an interesting 1928 photo of the small band that supplied the music for the Berlin stage production. The Weill expert says these seven musicians played a total of 23 different instruments. He also states the stage version had about 55 minutes of music, while the film has only a little over 28 minutes. The Pabst expert says that the movie has much less of a cabaret atmosphere than the stage version.
The experts also discuss the differences, which are major, between the plot in the movie and that of the stage musical. Some of this was due to the usual streamlining — for example, the cutting of the Lucy character — and the greater emphasis on visual storytelling that accompanies almost any stage-to-screen transformation. But there was something else going on here, namely that Brecht wrote a treatment, called "The Bruise" in English, that differed substantially from the stage production. The film's plot turned out to be partly from the stage version and partly from Brecht's treatment, with contributions by three screenwriters thrown into the mix. The Pabst expert claims that the film is more Marxist than the stage production.
Both Brecht and Weill became unhappy with the filmmakers and sued for breach of contract. Brecht lost his lawsuit, but Weill won his.
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