Romulus’ “Oliver” for Columbia release is the umpteeth crack at the Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist meller. Pathe in 1909, Vitagraph in 1910 and an indie company, with Nat C. Goodwin as Fagin, in 1912, made silent versions in the early days. Later, in 1916, Tully Marshall as Fagin and a girl, Marie Doro, as Oliver appeared in it for Paramount, followed, in 1921, by Lon Chaney and Jackie Coogan in the roles. The first talker version, for Monogram, had Irving Pichel and Dickie Moore.
There was a lull till 1948 when Rank – Cineguild – Ronald Neame starred Alec Guinnes as Fagin, Robert Newton as Bill Sikes and John Howard Davies as Oliver. This was held up considerably in the States owing to a hassle over Guinness alleged caricature of a Jew. For sorne time David Lean’s version has been regarded as the definitive version of the yarn.
But now comes a musical version proving that there’s plenty of mileage left in the famous story. With the modern yen for musical trappings this lengthy, lavish film of Lionel Bart’s legit stage tuner may well have edged the 1948 “Oliver Twist” out of the lead. Certainly this $10,000,000 pic is timeless enough to keep cropping up for future generations.
It’s a bright, shiny, heartwarming musical, packed with songs and lively production highspots and, though the leading performances are not all up to the Lean mark, if memory serves it’s a fine enough thesping ensemble to keep exhibitors and audience enthusiastic.
Bart’s stage musical hit has heen adroitly opened out by director Carol Reed into the grimy back alleys of old London’s underworld and he also presents a picturesque glimpse of the posher side of the London of the day.
“Oliver” goes with a cheerful swing, leading up to a strong dramatic climax when Bill Sikes gets his comeuppance after being hounded by police and public following his brutal rubbing out of Nancy.
Much of the interest, naturally, centers round the moppet playing the title role. Mark Lester, as the workhouse waif who finds happiness after a basinful of scary adventures, is a frail Oliver, with a tremulous, piping singing voice, but he’s vigorous and mischievous enough, particularly in the early stage, and is sufficiently dewy-eyed and angelic to captivate the audience. The youngsters, in both workhouse and Fagin’s Thieves’ Kitchen sequences, are natural scene-stealers but major honors go to a diminutive l5-year-old, Jack Wild, who plays the Artful Dodger with knowing cunning and impudent self-confidence.
Though only as author, composer, gets above-title billing, such thesps as Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe are rightly given “star” credit below title, while minor roles are filled by a gallery of capable feature players.
Miss Wallis, the much neglected English girl who had to go to the States to get her rightful recognition, is appealing as Nancy and shows tremendous vitality and a tough loyalty to her rough muscular lover and a winning maternal attitude to little Oliver. Ron Moody’s Fagin lacks some of the malignance usually assciated with the role of the wily old rascal though he shows sudden flashes of evil temper. He riotously squeezes every morsel of fun out of his tuition scenes with the little pickpockets and his rendering of “Reviewing the Situation” and “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” are both virtual showstoppers.
Oliver Reed’s bully Bill Sikes may lack scme of the terror of Robert Newton’s memorable Bill, but Reed is a sufficiently menacing and formidable thug. Extra stature is given the role of Mr. Bumble by Harry Secombe, not only by a performance of savvy out by his firstclass singing voice which gives a lift to the songs “Oliver” and “Boy For Sale.”
Hugh Griffith as a tipsy magistrate, Peggy Mount as Widow Corney and Leonard Rossiter’s shrewdly observed Sowerberry are all standouts, with Joseph O’Connor, Sheila White, Kenneth Cranham, Hylda Baker, Megs Jenkins, James Hayter and Fred Emney making impact in small but important cameos. Sykes’ bullterrier pooch, Bullseye, and a wise, malevolent owl, pet of Fagin, also raise plenty of audience amusement.
Bart’s familiar songs, such as “Food, Glorious Food,” “Consider Yourself,” “I’d Do Anything” and “Oom-Pah-Pah” are as fresh as ever and are given extra punch by John Green’s arrangements and muscial supervision, allied to Onna White’s peppy handling of the musical sequences Bart has also included one or two new ones. Even the most banal of the lyrics, “As Long As He Needs Me,” works with tearjerking effect, despite the fact that the talented Miss Wallis has to put over its fairly mushy words in closeup on the Panavision 70m screen.
There’s a particularly beguiling situation spot with “Who Will Buy,” as a solitary rose-seller appears in a West End square (one of the many large sets designed by John Box) and the square gradually fills up with vendors singing Old Cries of London, dancing schoolchildren, cops, windowcleaners, tweeny maids, nursemaids and a redecoated army parade working up to a well orchestrated ensemble and a pleasant, eyeworthy spectacle
On the whole, though, it’s the sullen, grimy London slums that come off best. Some of the more ritzy backgrounds of the Brownlow neighborhood where Oliver is taken after being discharged by the police court have a touch of picture-postcard staginess about them, but the shopping centre, market places and so on are gaily picturesque. Miss White’s dancing ensembles give a sprightliness to the general color and detail provided by the carefully researched artwork of Terence Marsh and the costumes of Phyllis Dalton.
Oswald Morris’ Technicolor lensing veers from soft pastel shades to bright color in street scenes and the lighting in the tavern and Thieves’ Kitchen scenes create an air of shadowy and smoky squalor without plunging the screen into gloom. Ralph Kemplen has edited down to 146 minutes, less overture, intermission and playout music, and he can scarcely be blamed if the picture is perhaps some 10 minutes too long.
In fact, all the technical staff rate a bow, with assistant music supervisor Eric Rogers, assistant choreographer Tom Panko, production supervisor Denis Johnson, special effects man Alan Bruce and Brian West, in charge of second unit lensing, all contributing handsomely to the detail that marks the pic. Credit titles start off with some neat sepia drawings by Graham Barkley which aptly set the period of Dickens’ famous story.
Vernon Harris’ screenplay keeps fairly faithful both to the outline of the novel and to Bart’s original legit book, allowing Reed eager scope to enlarge the activities of the Artful Dodger and Oliver in the streets on Oliver’s first pocketpicking “job” and in the closing sequence where Bill Sikes, using the moppet as cover, murders Nancy and then climbs high on to a wharf building to escape the angry crowd.
“Oliver” has minor faults, particularly an occasional tendency to lapse into staginess and a slightly hurried glossing over the early workhouse and undertaker’s shop situations. But its color, humor, familiar but castiron storyline sentimentality and w.k. central characters, plus Bart’s catchy ditties, provided sparkling standout family entertainment-plus and will reap profitable dividends at most theaters.