Friday, July 25, 2014

Oliver! (Best Picture 1968)

Oliver! is a cute musical drama based on the book Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. At two hours it would be a great film filled with great scenes. Unfortunately, it runs closer to three hours, and so is padded and over-produced. Its heart is in the right place, but by the end of the film you can't help but think, "Could we have a bit LESS, please?"*

(*This is a reference to the famous scene where Oliver walks up to the manager of the work-house and timidly asks for more, which starts up a chaotic chase through the hall.)  

The basic story is this: Oliver is an orphan living in a work-house outside of London. He has a few adventures in his little town, then decides to escape to London, where he immediately meets The Artful Dodger, leader of a group of boy pick-pockets. He is introduced in succession to Fagin, the adult who takes care of the boys and fences their stolen goods; Nancy, a bar-keep and former pick-pocket herself; and Bill, Nancy's husband and the biggest and meanest thief in their neighborhood. Trouble ensues when Oliver is brought along on a pickpocket heist but is caught by Mr. Brownlow; at court the charges are dropped and Oliver is placed under Brownlow's care. Bill fears that Oliver will talk, so he connives to kidnap Oliver and bring him back to their quarters. Unfortunately, Nancy has a change of heart, and in the end, Oliver lives with Brownlow, who in a Dickensian coincidence, turns out to be his great-uncle. 

Reading that plot summary, you wouldn't think it would take nearly three hours to tell that story, would you? Well, one of the most obvious time-consumers are the musical numbers. There are eleven different songs in this film. (although atleast two were cut from the original London/Broadway version!) Each of these songs is atleast five minutes long. And mostly, the story stops while the singing and dancing is going on. "Food" for example is simply five minutes of thin, starving boys in the work-house singing about what they want to eat as they watch the work-house governors feast on a banquet. Worst of all, songs that would be perfectly fine at five minutes get extended to even more. The fun song "Consider Yourself" that should be an intimate ode to friendship between the Artful Dodger and Oliver turns into an epic dance number featuring the entire London population. Likewise, a silly song (and by silly I mean "stupid") called "Who Will Buy?" goes on for ten whole minutes! A parade of vendors and Oliver sing "Who will buy this wonderful morning? Who will buy this wonderful day?" as they dance around the city square. After three minutes, I just wanted to symbolically slam the door in these dancers' faces and say, "Move along there!" 
The best part of this film are the moments with Fagin (Ron Moody) , the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), and the boys. There seems to be genuine affection between the participants, which makes even long, dragged out scenes such as "Be Back Soon" or "Pick A Pocket Or Two" almost bearable. Unfortunately, break up this cast and Fagin is nowhere near as interesting on his own. His solo song "Reviewing The Situation" is not funny, it's creepy. In fact, any moment we have with just Fagin, or Fagin with Bill and Nancy, we stop to think about how creepy the character really is. Now I don't suppose the name has any relation to the pejorative term for homosexuals, but it is an odd coincidence. "Fagging" in Britain has something to do with older class men bossing under-class men around, but I don't know if the term was in existence when Dickens created Fagin. Still, watching this film from the point of view of 2014, seeing Fagin prance around the boys and calling all the characters "my dear" doesn't really endear him, now does it? The Artful Dodger, on the other hand, is adorable in every scene he's in. Jack Wild was fifteen when he made this film but looks like he was twelve! (Mark Lester, who played Oliver, was only nine.) He had played Oliver in the London production, but was picked to play The Dodger in the film. He was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for this role, but lost to Jack Albertson (The Subject Was Roses, but more famously known for The Poseidon Adventure, Willy Wonka, and Chico And The Man). Jack Wild went on to additional fame as "Jimmy" on the TV series H.R. Pufnstuf
Now from the strengths let's talk about what I consider the weakest part of the story: Nancy and Bill. Bill is established pretty clearly as being a bully, thinking only of himself. Yet kind-hearted Nancy loves him, even singing the schmaltzy song "As Long As He Needs Me" to him after he hits her! This seems like a case-book abusive relationship to me! And another thing that bothers me: Nancy has put up with her unhappy life for a long time, but as soon as she sees Oliver and the possibility of his happiness with Mr. Brownlow, she risks her own life to help Oliver! Maybe we're supposed to think that Bill wouldn't *really* hurt her? That seems odd, since everything about Oliver Reed's portrayal of Bill Sykes enthuses violence. Shani Wallis as Nancy does a good job, but the plot lets her down. The producers seem to want to portray her as happy-go-lucky, but then need her to die at the end so Bill will get his comeuppance.
The technical side of the film is top-notch. Costumes and sets are beautiful, even if we never believe that this is actually London, and not a movie studio. In that sense, like everything else about this film, the sets are over-done. The stairway to Fagin's lair, for example, over some body of water, look absolutely fake. 
If you like musicals in general, and musical spectacles in particular, you are the audience this film was targeted for. If NOT...then either skip it, or watch it with the remote close at hand so you can skip through the L-O-N-G dance numbers.
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1968*
Produced by John Woolf
Directed  by Carol Reed
Screenplay by Vernon Harris
Based on the book 
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Here's a four minute trailer for Oliver!
Watch it and if you like what they're selling, you'll love the film itself.

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Funny Girl
The Lion In Winter
Rachel, Rachel
Romeo & Juliet
I am not sure why Oliver! won this year, as Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet is such a wonderful film. Funny Girl is another over-produced overly long musical drama starring Barbra Streisand. See the last comment above for my recommendation on this film. The Lion In Winter is the British version of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this time featuring Henry II and Eleanor. Interestingly enough, both Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor won Best Actress Oscars for their harpy roles, while perennial Oscar wannabes Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole were both nominated but neither (ever) won. Rachel, Rachel was Paul Newman's debut feature as a director and stars his wife, Joanne Woodward. 

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