I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. The next on my list was the 1968 winner, Oliver!, directed by Carol Reed and starring Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Jack Wild and Oliver Reed. The score is by Lionel Bart. I had previously seen it on TV many years ago. We watched it as a family, and it was almost magical.
Oliver! is a musical based on the Charles Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. Most of the story is told through song, with lavish dance numbers that depict the dark side of many social problems, such as homelessness, and social institutions, which were important both in Dickens' time and today.
The other competitors that year were Funny Girl, The Lion in Winter, Rachel, Rachel and Romeo and Juliet. I've seen and enjoyed all of those films except for Rachel, Rachel, which I haven't seen.
In addition to Best Picture, Oliver! won Best Art Direction - Set Decoration, Best Director, Best Music - Score of a Musical Picture, and Best Sound. Oliver! was the last G-rated film to win Best Picture.
At the beginning of the movie, Oliver (Mark Lester), an orphan, is living in a very depressing institutional setting, an orphanage run by the self-important Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe). Under his reign, Mr. Bumble dispenses arbitrary justice, with harsh consequences for minor infractions. Oliver unwittingly attracts his wrath when the other students put him up to asking for seconds on their dinner. Thus, Mr. Bumble roars the oft-repeated line, "More? You want more?"
When Oliver can bear the harsh treatment no longer, he runs away to London to try to make his fortune. There, he gets drawn into the underground world when he meets a young pickpocketer, known as The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild), who takes him home to a much more welcoming setting than the one he had left. A "family" of young pick-pockets live in an abandoned building, with their father figure, Fagin (Ron Moody) and mother figure, the compassionate Nancy (Shani Wallis).
Unlike his counterpart Mr. Bumble at the orphanage, Fagin appears to be jovial, although he is, of course, exploiting the children. By putting them out on the street to lift wallets, he avoids the risks of this illegal activity. The children turn everything over to him, some of which he resells for living expenses, and some of which, he keeps as personal treasures.
Still, for Oliver, it's a step up. For the first time, he feels as if he truly has a home. Then, of course, complications arise which threaten both his newfound status and his life. By the end of the film, Oliver finds that family however you define it means loyalty and personal sacrifice.
While this is a long movie (clocking in at 153 minutes), it doesn't feel long, since the story moves along, and the musical scenes are captivating.
Rewatching the movie was just as wonderful as watching it the first time. It's easy to forget that, while Dickens' stories are period pieces to us today, he was writing about contemporary settings and people. While his books were very entertaining, they also exposed social issues in a way that the general public could understand. Before Oliver Twist, how many middle-class and upper-class people had considered the plight of homeless children, or the state of such institutions as orphanages and work houses? Or the flaws in the system for dealing with orphaned and abused children? First the book and then this musical bring those concerns into sharp focus. The sets are well-done, evoking the time period and also the squalor of Oliver's world.
Another thing I love about Dickens is the way he distilled characters into their essential qualities, making them vivid to the reader, yet without being stereotypes. Ron Moody's Fagin follows in that spirit, at once the money-grubbing mercenary and the caring, yet weak-willed father figure. Moody, who played this role to perfection, had played it before: he was reprising his stage role.
The music and dance scenes are extremely well-choreographed and are justifiably considered classics. Many people have seen portions of this movie, even if not the entire film. One of the best-known scenes is "I'll Do Anything for You" (video), where Fagin's boys form themselves into a mock carriage to carry the Artful Dodger and Nancy around the room, spinning parasols for the wheels. The musical is filled with such classic songs as "Food, Glorious Food" (video), "As Long as He Needs Me" (video) and "Who Will Buy?" (video).
Interestingly, the movie was all shot on six London sound stages and a huge studio backlot. Some of the dance numbers required changing sets up to a dozen times.
Mark Lester, as the lead, appears very young (10 at the time the movie was filmed) and delicate-looking, yet has the ability to show different emotions with as much skill as older actors. However, his singing was actually dubbed by Kathe Green, daughter of Johnny Green, the music arranger/supervisor on the film, who revealed this secret in a 1988 interview.
Shani Wallis is heartbreaking as Nancy, the young woman who serves as a surrogate mom for Oliver, yet who is trapped in an abusive relationship with Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed).
This is one of those movies I could watch again and again. My husband, The Gryphon, tells me he used to watch it every Christmas when it came on TV. It's definitely a movie to consider owning. The version I rented from Blockbuster Online included a 1968 feature that provided a little insight into the making of the film, such as the fact that the director actually had miniature sets created as part of the planning process.
Oliver! will have you calling, "I want some more!"
Rating (5 out of 5): *****
It's possible to be both entertaining and socially conscious.