In 1960, across the sea in Britain, a musical premiered based on Charles Dickens’ classic take, Oliver Twist. The play was called Oliver! an was not only popular in Britain but had quite a successful run on Broadway and had a number of different revival tours. In 1968, just eight years after its premiere, the play was turned into a film, a film that won the 1969 Oscar for Best Picture.
The story mirrors that of the novel, starting with a young boy named Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) who is living in an orphanage. With no information at all about his parents of his family, Oliver eventually runs away from the orphanage to London so he can make his fortune. The first person Oliver meets in London is a young boy about his age, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Realizing that Oliver has no place to live, Dodger brings him to a name named Fagin (Ron Moody). The elderly Fagin lives with a group of twenty young boys, all of whom roam the streets of London pickpocketing whatever they can get their hands on. Fagin takes in Oliver and for a while, Oliver becomes a member of the thieves’ gang. When a job goes wrong, Oliver ends up being taken home by Mr. Brownlow, a man who may have ties to Oliver’s past. Nervous that Oliver is going to sell them out, one of Fagin’s adult partners, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), is determined to not only get Oliver back but to keep him from leaving them ever again. The film ends as Bill drags Oliver on a dangerous mission and Oliver’s friends desperately attempt to try and help him.
While the film has many comedic and dramatic parts, at its core Oliver! is a musical and lets the audience know that right off the bat. The musical numbers are done with the extravagance that can only be done in a film. Most numbers took place while winding through the streets of London with store clerks, street sweepers, street cart employees and butchers all joining in on the dancing. Extravagant, lengthy and full of theatrics, the songs are all very entertaining, featuring adults and children alike. Few adults are featured on the songs, other than background singers and the occasional solo from Fagan and Nancy (Shani Wallis), Bill’s girlfriend. What really impressed me, from a musical aspect, were the children. Though Oliver’s voice was a tad feminine for my liking, he seemed to approach his solos timidly but it quickly became clear that it was just quiet confidence. My favorite performer in the film however was the Artful Dodger as he mischievously danced through the streets, stealing and causing havoc as he did. I can understand why this film won Best Picture based solely on the musical scenes. They were theatrical, well done and were the highlight of the film.
The rest of the film was hit or miss for me. Set up to seem like a play, the film begins with a black screen, as if the curtains are drawn, while the orchestra plays and overview of the songs that are featured in the first act. After the first act is completed, the film gives the audience an intermission; once again letting the screen go black while the songs for act two are played. When act one finished, I didn’t know if I was going to finish the film. The musical numbers were good in the first act but ultimately I found the film to be quite boring. The only two things that pushed me to finish the film were Ron Moody’s oddly intriguing performance as Fagan and, the highlight of the film, Jack Wild’s charming portrayal of the Artful Dodger. As act two progressed, I found myself happy that I continued the film for it was leaps and bounds better than the first. While the first act featured almost nothing but songs and uneventful story, the second act included drama, suspense, violence and murder, making me wonder if the same person directed the first and second acts. So, while the film was very slow to start, it ended up proving that it was deserving of Best Picture.
In 1969, Oliver! went up against Funny Girl, the Lion in Winter, Romeo and Juliet and Rachel, Rachel in the Best Picture category. I have seen none of the other nominees so I don’t know how they compare to Oliver! but I believe that Oliver! deserved the win. As far as entertainment goes, I give this film a 2 out of 5 and as far as it being a good film I give it a 4 out of 5, which means, overall, the film gets a 6 out of 10. Following a classing storyline and creating some very impressive musical numbers lead by a cast of adorable kids, this is a surprisingly interested adaptation of Dickens novel.