MORE OF A MASTERPIECE THAN A MUSICAL!
In a list I made a few years ago, I considered naming this movie the worst Best Picture winner of the 1960s. Because of the quality of the candidates that decade, it was a tough choice, but the main reason why Oliver! entered my mind is that you can see the film as a symbol of an old Hollywood that was about to change, especially after the premiere of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. As so often happens, Oliver! did not deserve an Oscar as the best movie of 1968, the year of masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Once Upon a Time in the West… but it’s hard to find Best Picture winners that genuinely suck. Oliver! was a critically lauded, popular adaptation of a stage musical. The latter has survived to a greater degree as a classic, but the film is still worth your time.
Growing up with only gruel to eat
At a workhouse north of London, Oliver (Mark Lester) is growing up with only gruel to eat. After having the audacity to ask the staff for more food, Oliver is sold to an undertaker, where he’s targeted by an apprentice. When Oliver’s dead mother is mocked, he’s had enough and attacks his tormentor. Thrown in the cellar, Oliver escapes through a window and goes to London, where he meets the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), a boy who’s part of a gang of thieves headed by Fagin (Ron Moody).
Along with the boys in the gang, Fagin intends to make a proper thief out of Oliver, but when an attempt to steal a wallet goes wrong Oliver is caught and circumstances land him in the care of the kindly Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor). But Fagin’s gang is never far away…
Breaking records at the time
Lionel Bart’s stage show had a modest beginning, opening in 1960 at the Wimbledon Theatre. But success soon came to ”Oliver!”, as the show moved to West End and ran for more than 2,600 performances, breaking records at the time. ”Oliver!” was also a Broadway hit a few years later and it keeps getting revived on stages today. It was quite an achievement by Bart, once described by Andrew Lloyd Webber as ”the father of the modern British musical”. Unable to read or write music, Bart hummed his songs to Eric Rogers, composer of music for the Carry On movies, who put it all on paper.
While there are no outstanding songs on the score that have gone on to become huge hits of their own, the quality of the songs combined with the excellent choreography of the musical numbers keeps one enthralled throughout the film, both in its quieter moments and more spectacular sequences. My personal favorite is ”Be Back Soon” where Fagin sends his boys out to steal; in fact, most of the film’s truly engaging moments belong to these characters. Visually, there is much to admire in the film, especially the production design. The entire thing was shot at Shepperton Studios, but John Box and Terence Marsh’s sets take us to London’s squalid 19th century neighborhoods in stylish fashion, much the way David Lean’s 1948 Oliver Twist did.
Sir Carol Reed’s last great film is long but opulently staged and has solid casting. Mark Lester is an OK Oliver, even if he couldn’t sing and had to be dubbed by Kathe Green, daughter of the film’s composer, Johnny Green. Among the kids, Wild stands out as the very Artful Dodger, making enough of an impression to earn an Oscar nomination. Moody created his Fagin on stage and is perfect for the part, far from a pale imitation of Alec Guinness.
Then there’s Oliver Reed, the director’s nephew. After starring in films by Michael Winner and Ken Russell, Reed landed his biggest part yet as Bill Sikes in Oliver!, but had to fight for it; his intense, villainous performance became a wider breakthrough.
Oliver! 1968-Britain. 153 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by John Woolf. Directed by Carol Reed. Screenplay: Vernon Harris. Novel: Charles Dickens. Book: Lionel Bart. Cinematography: Oswald Morris. Music: Johnny Green. Songs: Lionel Bart (”Food, Glorious Food”, ”You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two”, ”Be Back Soon”, ”I’d Do Anything”). Production Design: John Box. Art Direction: Terence Marsh. Costume Design: Phyllis Dalton. Cast: Ron Moody (Fagin), Oliver Reed (Bill Sikes), Mark Lester (Oliver), Shani Wallis, Jack Wild, Harry Secombe… Hugh Griffith.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Original Score, Art-Direction-Set Decoration, Sound; Onna White also received an honorary Oscar for her work as choreographer. Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical), Actor (Moody).
Last word: “Everyone was really supportive. The director, Carol Reed, was very good at getting everyone together. It was quite easy, really. Oliver Reed was a bit frightening. A method actor who got into the role of Bill Sikes, so he was a bit terrifying. Everyone else was pretty amazing to work with […] Jack [Wild] was great. He was about five or six years older than me. So, he kind of took me under his wing. And right until the very end, when sadly, he died very young, we were still in contact with each other quite regularly.” (Lester, From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle-Grade Authors)