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Back to the Feature: Oliver! (1968)


          So clearly I didn’t learn from Thoroughly Modern Millie, because here I am tackling another musical.
          But this isn’t any musical, it’s Carol Reed’s Academy Award winning version of Lionel Bart’s stage hit Oliver! based on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. I’ve loved the book long enough that I have seen this musical performed a couple times on stage, but never got around to seeing the movie that was the toast of 1968. I was never huge on the musical, as when it came to Dickens as a kid, I was very much a purist, and this show in particular was a little too watered down from a story that was actually pretty dark. I mean it pulls no punches in how dangerous and grimy the underworld of London crime was in the 1830s, and the violence is by far Dickens at his most graphic. But I’ve learned to be more open-minded since then and besides, I’ve seen worse variations of this story.
          The premise for the few who don’t know, is about an orphan boy forced to go through childhood in a workhouse until age nine when he escapes. Making his way to London, he falls in with a gang of child pickpockets and petty criminals run by the old scheming thief Fagin. It’s through this that he’s exposed to the underbelly of London society and even more threatening figures.
          Almost all the core tent-poles of this story are kept, with only some good but admittedly lesser plot points and characters being lost in adaptation. For example, though it’s not necessary, I’d have loved to see the Dodger’s trial, which is cut from most versions. And the character Monks, Oliver’s half-brother, is cut out altogether. That being said, this show differs drastically from the novel in regards to tone. As I said, this was a fairly dark story, something adequately captured in David Lean’s earlier 1948 version, and this film in no way feels like a genuine representation of the era it’s set in. It’s very much an obvious production. But then, as far as translating this material for a family friendly audience goes, this musical doesn’t do a bad job, getting the story down and the major plot and character beats. It keeps some of the more brutal elements, particularly Sikes’ murder of Nancy, but tones them down so that they can better fit the lighter atmosphere of a musical. Though I’d argue it doesn’t really do the novel justice, it does act as a coherent story on its own, and my god can Carol Reed direct this kind of stuff. It almost reminds me of My Fair Lady the way he shoots the musical sequences, and the sets look fantastic. Except for the train that appears a couple times looking like its from a model set.
          The kid who plays Oliver looks fine for the part, but as with many child actors, can’t act well. The character of Oliver Twist never had that much dimension to him, but he was definitely more interesting than he’s made out here. And it might be part of the whimsical tone that he be made overly cute; all I can discern is that he doesn’t feel like a kid who’s legitimately suffered. The kid who plays the Artful Dodger is slightly better, but his character and the other kids are kind of done a disservice (Charley Bates is nowhere to be seen). The Dodger was mine and many other kids’ favourite character because he behaved and carried himself like a grown-up, and had a real intellectual maturity and control that we wanted for ourselves. But he definitely wasn’t trustworthy. Here, though he’s streetwise and cunning, he’s much too polite and chivalrous, particularly to Nancy. All the kids are portrayed as loveable little scoundrels which is very wrong for reasons I’ll touch on later. Shani Wallis plays Nancy and does so fine, but there’s a major problem with the character essentially fawning over Sikes. Their relationship isn’t happy and more than likely is abusive. But she’s got a song, “As Long as He Needs Me” which sounds almost like a kind of psychological conditioning, and it’s especially uncomfortable. The intent may be to make you sympathize with her, that she thinks he loves her despite his behaviour, but the film goes overboard to emphasize it, making for a Nancy who’s little more than a victim. The secondary characters are done well enough though: Joseph O’Connor makes for a fine Brownlow, Harry Secombe is good as Mr. Bumble, Hugh Griffith cameos as the Magistrate (who would’ve made the trial scene even more enjoyable if it was included), and Messalina from I, Claudius (Sheila White) even shows up as Bet. However, Kenneth Cranham, who’s since become a very good actor, was way too old for Noah Claypole, a decision that makes me grateful they cut his subplot. The best bit of casting though is an example of nepotism done right. Oliver Reed may have gotten the role of Sikes in part for being the directors’ nephew, but be that as it may, he might just be the best Bill Sikes I’ve seen in any film! This is a truly chilling performance, as Reed captures Sikes’ brutish terror, but conveys it a lot through its absence. He just has a presence when he enters any scene, before he even says one word, and it’s characterized by his rough look, those big sideburns and piercing eyes. One of my favourite scenes has to be when he’s threatening Fagin by relating what happens to a chicken when its head is cut off. This is a character you suspect is capable of murder from his first appearance, and you’re just waiting for that ball to drop. And he’s an incredibly despicable character (remember this is a guy who at one point tries to kill his own dog). As much as I love Robert Newton’s performance in the David Lean film, he doesn’t quite have that. Though he does have the better murder scene, while this film just hides it behind a stairwell. Nevertheless, Oliver Reed gave a great performance as one of Dickens’ greatest villains.
          The most problematic character in Oliver! and who a lot of the other problems do revolve around, is Fagin. The controversial history of this character probably plays into that. He’s a Jewish character, and in the book was often referred to merely as “the Jew” which has led to many a discussion as to whether he is an anti-Semitic figure. David Lean ran into a heavy backlash when he insisted on making up his Fagin (played by the great Alec Guinness) to look like the famous George Cruikshank illustrations, for a film coming out only a few years after the end of the Holocaust. And so perhaps because of this perceived anti-Semitism inherent in the character, at some point it was decided to downplay his role in the story as a villain, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Oliver! This Fagin is way more of a comic relief character than an out-and-out antagonist. He is made to be more sympathetic as well, with Sikes the more obvious villain -the film essentially concluding with his death in the climax. Fagin even makes it out of the show okay, not going to jail or awaiting execution as he does in the original story. What I take issue with is the fact that in neutering this character, it severely harms the intent of the story. Dickens was a social critic, and Oliver Twist was a showcase of harsh truths. There WERE criminals like Fagin and Sikes out and about, coercing with prostitutes and taking hapless children under their wings to train as criminals. Fagin’s gang was representative of something in London society Dickens wanted to expose and treat. But Oliver! changes that. The gang in the musical which has surpassed the book’s in popularity, is made up of generally harmless scamps, mere pickpockets and petty thieves; children who in their literary counterpart were unpleasant youths clearly on their way to becoming people like Sikes. Nancy was one of them once in fact. Oliver was essentially peer-pressured into this crew and it’s clear these aren’t nice children, moulded as they have been by Fagin. The Dodger and Charley abandon Oliver when he gets caught after all. The gang of the film is fun and whimsical, one that as a kid, you’d want to join. Dickens certainly didn’t want that. And a lot of this derives from this fun and whimsical interpretation of Fagin, who make no mistake, is a bad guy in the book. He’s shrewd and deceitful, and beats his pupils when they displease him. He even misleads Sikes about Nancy’s loyalty, leading to her death. Oliver!’s Fagin is just misguided. But in spite of all that, I do like Ron Moody’s performance. I don’t like the character, but as far as this character goes, Moody really plays him well. Every scene he’s giving this character his all, and is kind-of infectiously enjoyable. Moody probably couldn’t have played such a detestable character as book Fagin, but as musical Fagin, he’s superb. To the point I get how people could really like this version of the character. And I’d be lying if I said there weren’t any ways a sympathetic Fagin could work. There’s a discussion to be had as to whether villain Fagin or sympathetic Fagin is the better character. Is it better to have a really good albeit possibly offensive villain, or simply a man who’s in over his head and wants what’s best for his wards? I’m not going to engage that straight-on as this point is long enough already, but I favour the original incarnation a little more, if for nothing else than for Dickens’ intended commentary.
          But let’s get to what’s really important: the music. Because this is one of the best-known most-quoted musicals ever made. People still remember “Food, Glorious Food” almost as much as the iconic “I want some more” line. And that’s not a bad number, despite how cheerful it makes childhood misery sound. “Where is Love?” would be a quite moving song if not for the fact it’s so clearly an adult woman dubbing Oliver’s voice. But it’s well-written. “Consider Yourself” is catchy, though again I dislike how whimsical it makes the life of a child street thief sound. Also, seeing as Oliver has yet to meet Fagin’s gang, it’s a little unclear whether the song is meant to include all of London, given how the song’s production seemingly encompasses that. The next song, I have to admit, I do quite like in spite of its’ tone going against Oliver Twist; but “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” is so lively and is performed so exuberantly by Moody (though the bit where he directs the kids as a choir is a bit too much). Nancy’s song “It’s a Fine Life” is pretty garish and well choreographed, skirting the fact the life they’re singing about is prostitution. “Reviewing the Situation” is an okay song; a reprise of it is used to carry Fagin off as he repents his life of crime with Dodger, and I admire the edginess of “Oom-Pah-Pah”. But there’s a share of bad songs of course. “I’d Do Anything” is one of them, and as I’ve mentioned, I have severe problems with “As Long as He Needs Me”. And in addition to these, there are some very forgettable songs. Does anyone remember “Be Back Soon”?
          However the musical quality of Oliver! is overall pretty good in the context of the show. This is definitely a well-made musical, and apart from the child actors, very well-cast. It’s just the central conceit and adaptation from the book that really bugs me, to the point it changes Dickens’ intent. In this movie there’s no such thing as class disparity, and thievery is romanticized. Separating this movie from the book though, it’s a good musical, but still one with problems. Even given the light-hearted context there are details that don’t work and some problematic pacing. “Who Will Buy?” is a song that goes on way too long and the music they play shortly after Nancy’s murder is too light-hearted. 
          Oliver! won Best Picture at the Oscars, and for a film coming out the same year as Rosemary’s Baby, The Producers, and especially 2001: A Space Odyssey, it clearly wasn’t the best choice. But the movie, and for that matter the musical, acts as a decent introduction to the story of Oliver Twist for young people not ready for the real book. It’s an alright musical, a very well-made film, with some terrific performances from Oliver Reed and Ron Moody, just something of a shit translation of one of Charles Dickens’ greatest stories. For that, I can’t quite bring myself to really enjoy Oliver!, but I can admire it. 

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