People who’ve been frequenting this blog for the past couple of years probably know by now that there’s one annual tradition I follow on Dusted Off: every year, on my birthday—which is today, January 8—I post a review of a film featuring someone born on the same date as me. I’ve reviewed films featuring well-known stars born on January 8: Nanda, Elvis Presley, Fearless Nadia—and some lesser-known but also good ones, like José Ferrer and Kerwin Matthews.
This year, I’m wishing a happy birthday to Ron Moody (born January 8, 1924), the British actor whose first film appearance was back in 1958, and who’s acted all the way up to (according to IMDB) 2010. To celebrate Mr Moody’s 90th birthday, I’ll be reviewing the film that won him a Golden Globe, as well as an Oscar nomination—Oliver!, the musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, aka The Parish Boy’s Progress.
Oliver!, instead of setting up the detailed background that Dickens did in his book, takes us straight to where the action is: the workhouse for paupers and orphans, where—after a hard day’s work at the flour mill—Oliver (Mark Lester) and his comrades are summoned to their meal. Which, like all their other meals, consists of one measly bowl of gruel. While the boys line up at their bare benches and tables in their cold draughty hall, in the cosy little room next door, the governors are sitting down to a sumptuous feast.
No wonder the boys, who dream day and night of Food, glorious food—hot sausage and mustard! While we’re in the mood—cold jelly and custard!—end up ruing the fact that they’re fated to Do nothing but brood, on food, magical food, wonderful food, marvellous food, fabulous food…
They’re so desperate, even if it is for the ghastly gruel, that they draw straws to see who will go up and ask for more.
The beadle at the workhouse, Mr Bumble (Harry Secombe) drags Oliver into the presence of the board of governors, and sentence is passed: Oliver is to be given out to anyone who will take him in as apprentice, odd-job boy, or just about anything. With Mr Bumble singing out Oliver’s credentials (such as they are), Oliver goes out into the snowy lanes of the town—
—and ends up being ‘bought’ by an undertaker, Mr Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter) who explains this decision to his wife by saying that Oliver’s face has a melancholy to it which will make him fit right in at children’s funerals. Oliver will be superb in black, holding black plumes and walking along looking suitably glum in front of the hearse.
Oliver manages this as well as can be expected, but he’s sad and lonely and put upon. Life is a trial. To make matters worse, the undertaker’s apprentice, a nasty adolescent called Noah Claypole (Kenneth Cranham), loses no opportunity to say hurtful things to Oliver—especially about Oliver’s long-dead mother. Noah’s constant needling, one day, makes Oliver snap. He goes on a rampage, knocking over Noah and trying to beat the stuffing out of him. Oliver is finally contained (quite literally, in an empty coffin lying about) by the combined efforts of Mrs Sowerberry, Noah Claypole, and the maid.
Oliver is locked up for this misdemeanour, and, finding a barred window accidentally open, decides to take his chances with the world. Even though it’s snowing and there’s nobody to turn to, Oliver gathers up his worldly belongings in a small, pathetic little bundle, and sets out to walk the 42 miles to London.
It’s a terribly hard, lonely week-long trudge, with Oliver having to bed down in deserted hay stacks for the night, and finding himself receiving a faceful of mud when he tries to stop a passing stagecoach.
…and almost immediately, makes a friend. This colourful little figure, with all the bluster and pomp of a grown-up, is Jack Dawkins, better known as The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Before he’s known Oliver a minute, the Dodger’s already stolen a currant bun from the tray of a passing baker’s man—and has shared it with Oliver. When the Dodger discovers that Oliver is all alone and adrift in the world, he offers his new pal lodgings with an old gentleman who offers help of that nature.
A delightful song and dance follows, in which the Dodger (accompanied in his dancing and singing by groups of workers—everybody from butchers and bottle-washers to costermongers, priests and policemen) assures an anxious Oliver that the old gentleman, Fagin, will be more than happy to offer shelter to Oliver. Consider yourself at home, consider yourself part of the family, sings the Dodger.
The house is approached through a rickety staircase in a dirty, deserted and dodgy-looking part of town. Entering, Oliver’s faced by the other residents of the place, all of them young boys, and all of them swigging gin, smoking pipes, and regarding Oliver with a sort of contemptuous boredom. They’re all very daunting, but Fagin (Ron Moody, who is top-billed in the film) is much more welcoming.
Fagin organises a ‘game’ for the boys while Oliver looks on. All over himself, in his pockets and his belt, here and there, Fagin hides valuables—a snuff box, a silk pocket handkerchief, a watch and so on—and while he traipses about, sings about how In this life, one thing counts: in the bank, large amounts—and, since large amounts don’t grow on trees, you’ve got to pick a pocket or two. Oliver, fascinated, amused and somewhat awestruck, watches as the game progresses, and the other boys swiftly and surreptitiously strip Fagin of all the valuables he’s secreted on himself. And get a pat on the back for doing it all so well.
Later that night, Fagin heads out by himself to a tavern, where we are introduced to two other members of his extended gang. One is the pretty, vivacious Nancy (Shani Wallis), who works at the tavern. The other is Nancy’s lover, the surly and sinister thief Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed). Alone with Fagin, Sikes hands over a glittering haul to the older man to put into his sack: a necklace, silver plate, cutlery, and other odds and ends, all of them far more valuable than the much cheaper trinkets the boys bring Fagin.
Next day, Nancy comes visiting, is introduced to Oliver, and immediately warms to the little boy. Along with all the rest of the boys, Oliver too promises Nancy that he’ll Do anything for you, dear, a chorus that soon gets diverted to Fagin. The boys all prance around Fagin, whirling and swaying and fervently declaring that they’d lay down life and limb for the old man.
As it happens, this is the very day Oliver gets a chance to go out and try his hand at their trade. Along with the Artful Dodger and another boy, Oliver is sent out, and discovers—the moment when the other two zero in on their victim (a gentleman browsing through the wares laid out at a pavement booksellers’) –that this is thievery. Downright illegal, criminal. Oliver freezes, just as one of the boys reaches out to steal—and the intended victim whips around, sees Oliver standing there gaping, and assumes he’s the thief (Oliver’s two companions have scurried off).
The long and the short of it is that Oliver, though he tries to run, is caught, arrested, and brought up before a judge. Now what? Will poor little Oliver’s criminal career come to a sudden end? Or will Fagin & Co. be able to lay their hands on him again? Or, even if they can’t, will Oliver ever be able to get out of the misery and wretchedness that seems to be his lot?
Based on Dickens’s novel about the orphaned Oliver Twist, the musical play Oliver! was written by Lionel Bart, with music and lyrics by him too. It had premiered in London’s West End in 1960, and had swiftly become a hit, enough for it to then be taken to Broadway, and finally—in 1968—to be made into this film, directed by Carol Reed (incidentally, the uncle of Oliver Reed, who played Sikes).
What I liked about this film:
The songs and the dancing. The music is excellent, with lyrics to match—whether they talk of the bitter heartache of Nancy, loving Sikes deeply and trying to convince herself that it’s all worth it as long as he needs her; whether they are a paean to food, or a sly look at the advantages of being dishonest.
Added to that is Onna White’s choreography, which is top-class, and more often than not, intelligent. It’s not as if people break off from whatever they’re doing to begin a dance. The song Who will buy? is an excellent case in point: the dancers here include just about everybody on the street and in the houses lining it—butlers, maids, a flower-seller, policemen, gentlemen, milkmaids, etc. All of them use everyday props—dusters, ladders, flowers, pails, other tools of their trade—in their dancing, and their movements are stylised exaggerations, choreographed to look graceful, of movements that are basically ‘work’ movements, whether it’s climbing a ladder or cleaning a window.
Nothing much that I can think of, really, except that the story wears a little thin in places. The question of Oliver’s parentage, for instance, while it is touched upon, isn’t completely explained and leaves some questions unanswered.
Oliver!, since it’s based on a classic novel, merited—I thought—a comparison to its original source, Dickens’s Oliver Twist.
Oliver Twist is a fairly convoluted and long story, which begins with Oliver’s birth in the workhouse, followed by his life in the workhouse and at Mr Sowerberry’s, after which—with his escape to London and his subsequent ‘adoption’ by Fagin & Co—his life takes a series of turns. Much of this, beyond the first half of the book, actually centres round people other than Oliver. There is Mr Brownlow; there is Mrs Maylie and her charge, the pretty Rose, who is loved by (and is in love with) Mrs Maylie’s son, Harry. There is Mr Bumble, the beadle; there is the woman Mr Bumble marries, and who holds the key to an important secret. There is a cagey character called Mr Monks…
And much of it isn’t exactly happy. The lives of Fagin, Sikes, Fagin’s gang of boys are governed by squalor, unscrupulousness, violence and deceit; Nancy, while better than the rest, is so desperately in love with Sikes that he is able to drive her to just about anything. Oliver is caught in a wedge, bullied and pummelled by Sikes/Fagin/the boys, and too small and pathetic to do anything to break free.
Not, really, the sort of thing you’d want to read to cheer yourself up.
Oliver! is similar, as far as the story goes, to Oliver Twist—up to the point where Oliver is abducted back from Mr Brownlow’s. After that, this story does away with a lot of the bulk of Dickens’s original. This one has no Maylies, no Rose, and only very little about Oliver’s past and that of his mother. It’s a far simpler, shorter tale.
Even the treatment of Oliver! differs from that of Dickens’s book. Oliver Twist does have its moments of humour (the characters of Mrs Maylie’s servants, for instance; or the satirical way in which Dickens describes the workhouse and the attitude of its powers-that-be)—but it’s rarely, if ever, laugh-out-loud funny. It is mostly either melancholy and pathetic (when centring round Oliver) or grim and dark (when focussed on people like Sikes).
Oliver!, instead, is much more light-hearted. The second half does get dark and violent, particularly in the case of Sikes (who is perhaps the most closely related to his literary counterpart), but the general tone before that is much happier and lighter than in Dickens’s book. Not merely because of the songs and dances—which do lighten the mood, especially as most of the lyrics are amusing—but also in the way the characters are etched.
Oliver, for instance, isn’t as pathetic a figure as in the book. He has rather more gumption, and when he ends up in Fagin’s den, is more intrigued and fascinated by it all than shocked and frightened (as he is in the book). Similarly, Fagin is a markedly different figure. Unlike the villain he is in Dickens’s book, Fagin here is more greedy than anything else. He does seem to genuinely care for the boys (the way he tries to protect Oliver from Sikes’s wrath is noteworthy), and he is, overall, more comic than scary.
Little bit of trivia:
Oliver! won a well-deserved clutch of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Sound, Best Music and an Honorary Award for Onna White’s choreography. Ron Moody, besides being nominated for an Oscar for his role, won other awards—the Golden Globe, BAFTA, and at the Moscow International Film Festival among them.
Worth watching? Definitely.