Oliver! (1968)

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.

Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver!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.

The governors at the workhouse sit down to a meal...
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.

... and the orphans sit down to theirs
And Oliver it is.

"Please, sir, may I have some more?"
Oliver’s nervous “Please, sir, I want some more,” brings the world crashing down around his ears.

Mr Bumble's reaction
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—

Oliver is shunted out...
—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.

... and ends up at the undertaker's
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, outnumbered and imprisoned in a coffin
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.

On the road to London
Eventually, however, our little hero, having stowed away in a passing cart laden with baskets of vegetables, arrives in London…

Oliver arrives in London
…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.

The Artful Dodger
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.

Oliver gets an invitation
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 greets Oliver
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.

You've got to pick a pocket or two
Fagin, of course—though innocent little Oliver probably doesn’t recognise him as such right now—is a fence, a dealer in stolen goods.

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.

Bill Sikes hands over a haul
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.

Nancy makes friends with Oliver
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).

Oliver is accused of picking a pocket
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.

From the song "Who will buy?"
What I didn’t like:

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.

Comparisons, comparisons:

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.

Ron Moody with Shani Wallis and Oliver Reed in Oliver!
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.

Ron Moody as Fagin in Oliver!
…and Ron Moody (who had played Fagin onstage, and was therefore reprising his role for this film) is perfect as the wily old fence.

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.

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45 thoughts on “Oliver! (1968)

  1. Many happy returns of the day Madulika
    David copperfield and Oliver twist of dickens were on our curriculum in our high school study .your wonderful post taken me back to my school days.(4o years back)
    Thank you

    • Thank you, Epstein!

      Dickens – at least his novels – were never part of our school curriculum, though there were excerpts from other works of his (I recall a section from Great Expectations).

      I remember reading an abridged version of Oliver Twist, which we had at home.

    • Thank you!

      I can never decide which song is my favourite from this film – I am always torn between You’ve got to pick a pocket or two, Consider yourself and Food, glorious food – it probably has something to do with my childhood, because these were the songs (along with Who will buy? and Oom-pah-pah) that were played very often on our local radio station, so I became very familiar with them.

      Reviewing the situation, while its music doesn’t stick in my mind, has fantastic lyrics.

  2. Thank you as always for such a nice description and pictures. “Oliver” was the first film I went to see by myself at about age 10. Mark Lester and Jack Wild were highly popular for some time. There was another film with Wild and Ron Moody called “Flight of the Doves” that I remember fondly. Wild did a nice pop tune called “Melody”, he and Lester were in a film of the same name, but I have not seen that one. In Oliver one song that always runs through my mind afterwards goes something like “Cheerio, but be back soon…”

    • Thank you for the appreciation, kenjn60!

      I used to hear the songs of Oliver! when I was a child – they used to be played very often on radio, so I was familiar with them. But I got the movie only a couple of years back, and actually got around to watching it only last week. Even more than Mark Lester (whom I found mildly lacklustre, actually!), I liked Jack Wild – he was such an interesting character, and very much how I’d imagined the Artful Dodger. I must look out for Flight of the Doves; thank you for the recommendation!

  3. This is my first ever visit to your blog today Madhu. First of all I Wish you many many happy returns of the day & every success in your life. Please excuse me for being bit late although. Incidentally, it is a pleasant surprise to find my daughter also shares her birthday with you the 8th of January. I presume she is also going to make it big too one day.
    As a matter of fact in my quest to find whereabouts about my most favourite beauty on Indian screen I stumbled upon your site & thanks to you for giving me exactly what I was looking for on Shakila. I’m writing about her on the same page shortly & wish my message is noticed by her. Please help me with this as well. With warm regards.
    Swatantra Kumar

    • Thank you, and a very happy (though belated) birthday to your daughter as well!

      I’m sorry, but I don’t have Shakila’s contact details – how would you like me to help you?

      • Thanks for everything Madhu. I have posted my sentiments on Shakila’s page just like a paper boat in river which if it ever reaches the destination, will only be a result of miracle. And, I do believe in miracles.

        • I forwarded your comment to Tasneem, and she wrote back to tell me that she showed it to Shakilaji, who was (in Tasneem’s words) ‘ecstatic’! Tasneem tried leaving a comment on my blog – she mailed me to say so – but it hasn’t shown up, unfortunately. Just thought I’d let you know that your favourite film star knows now how much you admire her. :-)

          • Oh my God – you have made my day with your feed back. Many many thanks Madhu once again for your invaluable assistance. I can’t believe my luck. Remember, I said I believe in miracles & its yet another occasion I have witnessed one. I’m leaving my email address with a hope Shakila ji will say a few words herself about my sentiments for her. It will be another miracle in my life although.

            sethiestates@yahoo.com

  4. I was away from cyberspace, attending to some work, so missed quite a lot. Anyway as they say better late than never, so as it is a little late in the day to wish you a Happy Birthday, I would like to say that May God Bless You with all the Happiness in the world.
    Now about Oliver, I saw this film way back in my childhood when this film released in Bombay and it made a lasting impression on me. I remember I really loved Mark Lester and also Ron Moody. I had expected Mark Lester to make big as an actor later in life but he chose a different route and went on to become a director.

    • And a very, very happy, safe, healthy and successful year to you, Shilpi! Have a wonderful 2014.

      I’d never heard of Mark Lester before I watched Oliver! last week. Then, I went off to check his filmography on IMDB and discovered that he last worked in 1977 in a version of The Prince and the Pauper – and now, after a break of so many years, he’s again working, in a film called 1066, which is due for release in 2015. That should be interesting – to see how he’s changed, from a child actor to an adult. I had no idea he’d become a director, actually – IMDB, at least, doesn’t list any works as a director.

  5. Heh, Madhu, just came back to read your review. Must confess to not having watched Oliver at all, though I have heard (and seen) the Food, glorious food scene. Your review makes me want to watch it, though I have studiously ignored it for so long. Funnily enough, I remember watching the animated version (Disney) some years ago – in which Oliver is a homeless kitten. :)

    • “I remember watching the animated version (Disney) some years ago – in which Oliver is a homeless kitten. :)

      We live and learn, don’t we? I have never even heard of that!

      I must admit that I’d been a bit wary of watching Oliver!; somehow, the book is so sad and miserable through much of it that I couldn’t imagine how it could be turned into a musical – and that too with the sort of songs I’d heard again and again. It does fit, though, because the entire tone of the musical is markedly different from the book, especially in the first half.

  6. I somehow missed this post, maybe because it appeared on the day of my flight.
    Oliver Twist, I read it when I was in the sixth class, that means I was 11 years old or so. We had it as a part of our English class. Of course I read the abridged version and found it to be so similar to our rona-dhona good bachha on the streets type.
    High time I read the original.
    I wonder, how I would react to it being a musical.
    If I remember right, Chanda aur Bijli (1969) was a sort of Hindi adaptation of Oliver Twist, with Sachin playing Oliver.

    • Oh, I’ve never seen Chanda aur Bijli! I should, now, and see whether it does resemble Oliver Twist or not.

      Till a couple of weeks back, the only version of Oliver Twist that I’d read too was the abridged version that we had at home when I was a child – we never studied it in school, though. The unabridged version is available online on Project Gutenberg, in case you’re interested (and have the time):

      http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/730

  7. While reading ‘Evening in Paris’ review I noticed the review of ‘Oliver’! Missed it for obvious reasons :-)
    But am glad to have seen it. This is one of my favourite films in English (My Fair Lady too) and we watch it regularly at least once a year. Watched this last in December 2013.
    Agree with whatever you’ve written about the songs/characters/actors/dances……everything. Every actor sort of melted into the character they were playing. Ron Moody was very impressive. I was amazed at the sets too. What a believable hole they created where the pickpockets lived with Fagin. Also that pub and chestnut roaster were such good touches. I could go on talking about it. :-)
    Thanks for the review DO.

    • That screenshot up there with Oliver saying ‘Help me. Please.’ while seeking to hitch hike to London is heartbreaking. The way he says it, and the fact that there’s no self pity just a normal disappointment (from which he learns ;-) adds to make it even more poignant.

    • You know, pacifist, you were the one who inspired me to watch Oliver!. I’d had this DVD for a while, but had been putting off watching it, because I just couldn’t reconcile the thought of a musical (especially as I was familiar with the songs) with the sad story of Oliver Twist. But you left a comment on my blog – I’ve forgotten on which post – telling me that Oliver! was good, so I did see it! Thank you for that.

      Yes, the chestnut roaster and the pub were good, though I thought the distant shots of the city beyond looked too stagey. Incidentally, I read an interesting bit of trivia, that the scene where Bumble takes Oliver out to be ‘sold’ was shot in summer, and the ‘snow’ was a mix of various items, including mashed potatoes!

  8. Hi Dustedoff

    You did a great review for one of my all time favourite films. Out of all the Oliver versions I’ve ever seen, this one will always remain my favourite. I couldn’t agree more that Fagin is the star in this film. Uusually it’s always the main protaganist but here it’s the supporting character, which is a rare occassion.
    Even though the film is very different from the book, I much prefer Fagin as a comical thief and unlawful but also misunderstood with a heart of gold rather than the brutal coward he was in the book. He was really just taking advantage of Oliver all along and it was really just Dodger that was Oliver’s closest friend, whilst Fagin in the film was a lot nicer and tried to protect Oliver from Sykes. So you can say that Oliver had a lot of backup in this film, mainly from Dodger, Fagin, Nancy and Mr Brownlow. The original adaption is far more depressing. Even though I love the book. the film brought an optimistic, light-hearted side to it, which I appreciated far more.
    I totally agree with you about the songs and choreography. It’s absolutely fantastic. No wonder it won all those awards! Makes me wonder if the same choreographer was the one that directed the dance moves for Mary Poppins (because that also won an Oscar for Choreography as well, if I remember correctly).
    I’ve seen that most of the follow-up adaptations, Fagin’s character was inspired by Ron Moody’s interpretation in this film. Although Alec Guinness’s portrayal isn’t the charming character as he is here, his physical appearance of Fagin is probably the closest you could get! There are versions where Fagin is just as spiteful as he is in the book (in the 1985 mini-series he’s pretty awful).
    Did you ever see the ABC Saturday Special Oliver Twist and Artful Dodger by Hanna Barbera in 1972? It’s a sequel to this film. but it’s animated. It’s not well known which is a shame. It’s definitely well worth checking out. I’m awaiting for a possible dvd/blu ray release!

    • AdonisBlue, thank you for that comment, and for the appreciation! I agree that while the book is good, I prefer the more light-hearted feel of this film (mostly because Oliver isn’t as completely bereft of friends as in the book – that is, those parts of the book which are there in the film, since a good bit of the book, with several characters, is missing here).

      I have to admit I haven’t seen any other adaptations of Oliver Twist – this was the first, and mostly watched because a friend had recommended it (and, of course, as I mentioned, because I was already very fond of the songs).

  9. I have not seen the film yet but cannot resist posting this:

    Oliver! gets a lot of flak from today’s film fans just because it “stole” the Best Picture Oscar from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    • I an going to be an iconoclast and fess up: I didn’t care for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, excellent look – I’d never have believed this was made back then, it looked so futuristic – but the story just didn’t grip me.

  10. I love it myself but do concede that some sequences could use major trimming. Especially The Dawn of Man. I know it is supposed to be convey the desolation and sameness of early man’s existence but boy, is that self-indulgent.

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