Thursday, December 22, 2011

OLIVER! (1968)

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After acknowledging the civil rights movement still going on in the country at that time by awarding IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT in 1967, in 1968 the Academy went right back to what it did for most of the 60's, giving yet another Best Picture award to a film set entirely in Europe.  Which is not to say that OLIVER! is a poor choice; with it's lively, catchy score, energetic choreography and massive, gorgeous sets, it's a charming and delightful musical that never feels dull at two and half hours.
The 1838 novel by Charles Dickens was first adapted into a musical  in 1960 by Lionel Bart,  who wrote  the score and the book.  Premiering at London's West End theater, it came to Broadway to success and acclaim two years later.  Inevitably, film rights were bought by Romulus Films  and journeyman director Carol Reed was hired to direct; he would spend months rehearsing his cast of unknowns (thousands of boys were auditioned before Mark Lester was chosen for the title role) before even shooting.  The cavernous sets reportedly took up six sound stages, and weeks were spent shooting the bigger musical numbers.  The budget of ten million dollars was steep at the time, but the film returned over sixteen million in the US alone.
It tells the story of OLIVER TWIST, an orphaned boy who is thrown out of his work house/orphanage for asking for a second helping of gruel.  Eventually making his way to London, Oliver meets a slightly older boy named the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), who introduces him to Fagin (Ron Moody), who provides food and shelter to boys who are willing to steal for him.  After a pick pocketing attempt goes wrong, Oliver is adopted by the wealthy Mr. Brownlow (Josephy O'Conor), who eventually realizes that Oliver is the son of his niece that disappeared years earlier, but not before Oliver is kidnapped by the evil Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).  Eventually, Oliver is saved from the clutches of Sikes, who is killed in a rooftop chase, and goes to live with Mr. Brownlow. 

Jack Wild and Mark Lester

I find it interesting that Vernon Harris's script for the film  often has almost the bare minimum of spoken dialogue necessary to move the plot along, frequently using physical action to tell the story, while the musical numbers are practically piled up on top of each other. Just look at the way that the opening song, "Food Glorious Food" segues almost immediately into the next song, "Oliver". But, with its simple story (this film is a good introduction to musicals for kids) and terrific score, I don't think this is a bad thing, as it feels that this a film that almost bursts at the seams with music.
My favorite scene in the film is the unforgettable "Consider Yourself" number, which begins with the Artful Dodger singing to Oliver and just gets bigger and bigger, with street urchins, butchers, newsboys and many others  all joining in as the two boys make their way through the crowded London street.  As the song ends, Reed's camera pans up to show blocks of hundreds of people singing and dancing at the same time in a perfect moment of cinematic delight.  This formula is used again later in the film during "The Who Will Buy" number, which starts with Oliver singing alone and then grows until an entire  town square joins him; although it isn't quite as successful as the earlier scene, it still is impressive.  And even in the non musical scenes, Reed comes up with some excellent visuals: I love the way that he introduces Fagin from behind a cloud of steam, brandishing a tong like a devil's pitchfork, or the way that we see Bill Sikes's long shadow moving down a dark tunnel before we see him.

Ron Moody as Fagin

My favorite performance in the film is Ron Moody's as Fagin; Moody had already played the character in the London production,  and clearly had him down cold.  His Fagin is a greedy, unrepentant criminal who corrupts young boys, but somehow he is lovable, mainly because he clearly does care about the boys, and abhors violence.  And he is also very funny, especially when he sings the classic "Reviewing the Situation", in which he considers reforming, but can't quite bring himself to do it.  I also enjoy Oliver Reed as the evil Bill Sikes; he plays the role completely straight, and his intense, brooding presence keeps the film's tone from getting too light.  Interestingly, his character sang on stage, but not in the movie, and there are some reports that this was because of Reed's singing voice not being up to the standards of his costars.  I personally, I think this actually works for the character; the fact that Bill refuses to join in with the dancing and singing going on around him makes him more removed and darker, adding to his villainous nature.  
I do have one problem with the film's casting: I am genuinely surprised that after auditioning thousands of boys, Mark Lester was chosen.  Oh sure, he's a reasonably cute kid, but he often seems a bit stunned or bored on screen, and he just isn't all that interesting or likable as a child actor, unlike Jack Wild's charismatic Artful Dodger.  I also don't like Lester's singing voice (which, it was revealed years later, was dubbed by a girl named Kathe Green), and I find Oliver's one solo number, "Where is Love?" the only one in the film that completely fails.  Even worse is that, considering that he's the hero, Oliver  actually never does anything in the story that could be called heroic.  Most of the time, he has other characters help or hinder him, and he just passively stands by and accepts it. He's even too dim witted to run away from Bill Sikes when he has a clear chance to do so. And, of course, his happy ending arrives entirely out of sheer luck, without any energy expended on his part.  (I realize that my criticisms here apply as much to the original novel as they do to the film).  Thankfully, having such a dull lead character really doesn't hurt the film, because Oliver is constantly surrounded by far more colorful and interesting people who brighten up the film. So I still really enjoy it.


While I obviously have a real affection and warmth for OLIVER!, there was a colder, stranger film that came out that year that would prove to be extremely influential: Stanley Kubrick's 2001, which is perhaps the finest Science Fiction film ever made, and clearly is superior to the charms of OLIVER!, engaging as those charms may be.