At the start of this film I quickly became dreadfully concerned it was going to be a stupid movie. I mean like really, really stupid. Like Around the World in 80 Days level stupid.
But after the first 30 minutes I had gone from “Oh no” to “Oh wow!”
Based on the Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist, the musical follows the life of Oliver (Mark Lester), one of the barefoot orphan boys forced into labor at a workhouse and survive on nothing by gruel.
The story begins as large trays of beautiful looking food are brought to the manager, Bumble (Harry Secombe), and the visiting governors who fund the workhouse. The boys look longingly at what they can never have.
SONG: Food, Glorious Food
Instead they are dished up their spoonful of gruel, down it in seconds and find themselves naturally still hungry. Oliver draws the short straw (actually it was the long strong but that doesn’t have the same ring to it) and approaches Bumble with his empty bowl daring to ask…
“Please sir, I want some more.”
Enraged, the governors decide to sell him. Seriously?!?
This is the whole section of the film that had me wondering just how stupid it was going to get.
Bumble drags Oliver through the snowy streets calling out for anyone to buy the child.
SONG: Boy for Sale
He is eventually sold (on the cheap) to the mortician but after one of the other apprentices insults Oliver’s mother (who is dead) Oliver flips out and attacks everyone. He gets thrown in the cellar.
SONG: Where is Love?
It was getting pretty tough to watch at this point. Like a lot of children, Mark Lester has a very airy and falsetto singing voice. It’s not really pleasant to listen to and at times sounds comical. And with a song like “Where is Love?” I was wondering how sappy this might get.
But Oliver escapes when he leans on a window and discovers it conveniently open. He hops on various wagons and makes his way to London.
Thankfully this is where the true talent starts to enters the film and we can put that bit of schlock behind us.
First up is Jack Wild as Jack Dawkins aka “the Artful Dodger.”
The Dodger takes Oliver under his wing and offers to bring him to a place where he and other young lads like themselves are cared for.
SONG: Consider Yourself One of Us
At this point his film goes full-blown Broadway and becomes a fun, complete spectacle. I was totally won over.
When Dodger brings Oliver to meet Fagin at their headquarters it feels like you’ve walked in on the Lost Boys.
Boy: “These sausages are moldy!”
Fagin: “Shut up and drink your gin!”
The next stellar bit of talent in the film is Ron Moody as Fagin. He lights up the screen with the physical nimbility of Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
He tells Oliver that the boys don’t make the wares he sells, but rather pickpocket the goods. He explains in convincing fashion that sometimes…
SONG: You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two
After the boys have gone to sleep, Fagin sneaks off to meet with Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), an adult thief and business acquaintance. Bill Sikes is a nasty, aggressive and violent bloke. He is brutal and merciless.
Bill’s girlfriend, and a waitress at the pub nearby Fagin’s hideout, Nancy (Shani Wallis) comes by in the morning to collect money from Fagin for Sikes. It’s here that she meets Oliver.
The other boys poke fun at Oliver for his polite and gentlemanly manners toward Nancy. But she finds it endearing which makes the other boys jealous. Dodger makes an attempt at gallantry and Fagin and the boys and Fagin join in.
SONG: I’d Do Anything
When Dodger’s theft of a wallet belonging to a wealthy man named Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O’Conor) doesn’t go as planned Oliver is mistakenly arrested for the crime. Fagin and Sikes are concerned that Oliver might blow the whistle on their operation and go to the court to see if he squeals.
He doesn’t. But before sentencing can be handed down a witness comes forward to clear Oliver. Mr. Brownlow feels bad about the accusation and offers to take in Oliver and care for the orphan.
Well, as it turns out, Mr. Brownlow had a niece who went missing and wouldn’t you know it that portrait of her on the wall bears an uncanny resemblance to the toe-headed street urchin now living in the stately Brownlow manor.
This reminded me how I once heard Damon Lindeloff, the mastermind behind LOST, refer to Charles Dickens as a “master of coincidence.” Indeed.
But Sikes just can’t let go of his fear that Oliver will talk and he wants Nancy to bring him back. She refuses but he forces her to comply. As you can imagine, they have a bit of a codependent relationship.
SONG: As Long As He Needs Me
With Oliver back with the gang Sikes becomes more and more hostile. Nancy secretly makes plans to leave him and help Oliver escape. And even Fagin is considering leaving his life of crime before it’s too late.
SONG: Reviewing the Situation
In the meantime more Dickensian coincidence unfolds as Bumble, having heard about Oliver having gone missing, comes to see Mr. Brownlow. He brings him Oliver’s mother’s locket that he happened to still have and Mr. Brownlow realizes Oliver must be his niece’s son.
Nancy goes to Brownlow to arrange a meeting place for him to get Oliver back. But things don’t go as planned and Sikes kills Nancy as she tries to bring Oliver to Brownlow. A chase through the streets ensues culminating with a hostage situation on the rooftops of London. Sikes is shot by the police and Oliver returns to Brownlow’s home for good.
Meanwhile Fagin has made up his mind to turn over a new leaf on the straight and narrow. But just as he is about to begin his new life a reformed man, Dodger appears with a wallet he just pickpocketed.
SONG: Reviewing the Situation (reprise)
As the sun rises over London they dance off happily together to live a life of thievery for the rest of their days.
There’s nothing particularly deep or profound about the film but the script is solid and the performances are fun.
But most of all the production numbers are huge, over-the-top and look absolutely fantastic. It’s easy to see why choreographer Onna White was given an honorary Oscar for her outstanding work in this film.
White was a veteran having done the choreography for Broadway shows such as Irma La Douce, Mame, and Gigi plus the film and stage choreography for The Music Man and 1776.
Jack Wild parlayed his success as Dodger into the starring role of Jimmy in the Sid and Marty Croft TV series H.R. Pufnstuf. It lasted only one season but has a solid cult following to this day.
Sadly, Wild died from cancer in 2006. He was only 53 years old.
Shani Wallis (Nancy) was one of those 1960/70s actresses that appeared in something hugely successful but then quickly vanished from the spotlight. Actresses like Olivia Hussey, Louise Fletcher, Shelly Duvall, Eileen Brennan and Sally Kirkland were great for a brief period but quickly faded into the footnotes of Hollywood history. It’s not that they didn’t continue to do good work, they just weren’t in the forefront very long.
At the 41st annual Academy Awards Oliver! led the pack with 11 nominations and five wins—picture, director (Carol Reed), art, sound and score.
Ron Moody and Jack Wild were also each up for actor and supporting actor, respectively. As was Vernon Harris for his adaptation of Lionel Bart’s Broadway musical.
Oliver! would be the last movie musical to win best picture for the next 35 years. So in about 4 months (on my birthday no less!) I’ll talk more about that.
As much as I enjoyed this film it wouldn’t have been my pick for best picture. The Lion in Winter, starring Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn is such a colossally good film it’s hard for me to believe it didn’t win. It came into the night with seven nominations including “The Big Five.” It won two (actress and screenplay) but frankly, it should have won all five.
It’s one of the great Oscar tragedies that Peter O’Toole never won best actor, especially when this performance is on his resume and doubly especially because he lost to Cliff Robertson in Charly.
This wasn’t without controversy. Shortly after the Oscars TIME magazine reported the Academy’s concerns over “excessive and vulgar solicitation of votes” and said “many members agreed that Robertson’s award was based more on promotion than on performance.”*
Apparently around October of 1968 Robertson (better known to you and me as Uncle Ben in those terrible Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies) started running “for your consideration” ads in Hollywood trade magazines.
Alas, that’s Oscar politics. It’s commonplace now to see those kinds of ads throughout awards season. But back then it was a tacky.
This was also the year that Katherine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl) tied for best actress. It was only the 2nd time there was an acting tie. The first happened in 1932 when Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) and Wallace Beery (The Champ) both won best actor.
However it wasn’t a real tie. Beery received one more vote than March, but back then the rules stated that if the count was within three votes they would consider it a tie. The rule subsequently changed. So, apparently Kate and Babs both received the exact same number of votes.
But those Oscar politics make me suspicious. Streisand was a hot commodity in 1968, a big music star who’d already won 4 Grammys. Now she was making her film debut in a hugely successful movie (#2 at the box office).
But how could they ignore Hepburn’s searing portrayal of Eleanor of Aquitaine? She puts on an acting clinic.
“I know! We’ll give them BOTH an Oscar!” – Make-Believe Oscar Conspirator
I’m sure it’s just my imagination but… well, I’ll just leave it at that.
*TIME, “The Trade: Grand Illusion” – Friday, Apr. 25, 1969