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Some accounts of the demise of the big-screen musical list The Sound of Music as a monster hit followed by nothing but flops: Star!, Doctor Doolittle. But in 1968 Columbia released not one but two successful big stage adaptations that scooped up many of that year's Oscars, Funny Girl and Oliver! Lionel Bart's musical had been brightening stages since 1960 before top-notch English talent created this Road Show attraction that seemed to satisfy everybody. Looking at the decade in general, nobody would think that the Musical would go into decline - nine '60s musicals were nominated for Best Picture, and of those four were winners.
Oliver! is a close adaption of the Broadway musical, which had already simplified and lightened the tone of Dickens' book. Tiny Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) dares ask for more gruel in the orphan's workhouse, and for his trouble is sold to the undertaker Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter). When a jealous fellow employee starts an unfair fight, Oliver runs away to London. There he's recruited by the young sneak thief The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) into a den of under-aged thieves supported by the venal but amusing Fagin (Ron Moody). Oliver has barely gone out on his first pick-pocketing lesson when he's falsely arrested. But the thieves' target Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O'Conor) takes Oliver into his house. The place is like paradise to the orphan, and he's grateful to all. Unfortunately, this will not stand with Fagin or his thug confederate Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), who is convinced that Oliver will "peach" (inform) on them. Sikes' abused girlfriend, ex-thief Nancy (Shani Wallis) is forced to help kidnap Oliver, to put him once again under Fagin's control. Nancy defies Bill to protect the boy, putting herself in dire jeopardy.
Charles Dickens' original book was a major work of social comment, written at a time (the late 1830s) when life for the poor in England could be a degrading hell. Dickens enlivened his story with colorful, amusing characters, and most everything that occurs has a humorous side. Making the tale into a musical naturally lightens things even further somewhat, but Lionel Bart's play book doesn't shy away from the original's brutality and dark deeds.
It is of course somewhat fanciful that Mark Lester's Oliver could be such an unmarked innocent. Fagin's den of diminutive thieves is preferable to the workhouse only by degree. The boys do eat meat, even if it's moldy sausage. As The Artful Dodger, Jack Wild has a generous spirit -- London always seems to have room for another thief. The character of Fagin has been targeted as an anti-semitic stereotype ever since the book's publication. David Lean's 1948 film version had serious censorship problems in the United States. Ron Moody's interpretation is the one that has stuck. That a man who criminally exploits children for profit should be sympathetic is a credit to Moody's appeal. Fagin is a fanatic miser willing to leave any of his boys in the lurch, yet he doesn't want anyone hurt.
The characters that made the strongest impression in 1968 were the cutthroat Bill Sikes and his lovingly faithful Nancy. Oliver Reed has more than enough simmering menace to compensate for Ron Moody's sweetness; he looks ready to murder anyone at most any time. Sikes is so rotten that even his own dog eventually does the right thing and 'peaches' on him. Nowadays it is Shani Wallis who comes off as the film's star. Her Nancy has the most vibrant songs, including the emotional showstopper As Long as He Needs Me. It's tragically believable that the spirited and optimistic Nancy would commit herself to the monstrously abusive Bill. Lectures about injustice to women are not necessary, as no viewer will misinterpret Nancy's tragic story. The movie's solitary odd note comes when it reaches for a happy fade-out. We're still thinking about the person that has paid most dearly to help young Mr. Twist avoid a sorry fate.
The music of Oliver! has several still-popular tunes, and other amusing songs that fit the movie perfectly. Food, Glorious Food and Consider Yourself are great boy's chorus numbers, expanded into large dance scenes. The choreography by Onna White was given a special honorary award by the Academy. You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two is one of several signature Fagin songs. Shani Wallis also sings the big numbers It's a Fine Life and Oom-Pah Pah. The original play gave Bill Sikes a tune, but in the movie the blaggard stews in silence. Johnny Green supervised the music and the chorus as well as orchestrating and conducting. When Mark Lester's voice proved unusable, Green's daughter dubbed his songs.
Audiences of '68 were surely impressed by the film's stylized look. John Box had solid art directing credits before Lawrence of Arabia, and from that point forward was tapped for some of England's most prestigious pictures. Most of the interiors and almost all of the exteriors are purposely drab and dank-looking, to the effect that color accents stand out sharply. The street sets look very deep, and just wide enough for Onna White's dancing troupe. The back alley leading to Fagin's hideout is a warren of rickety stairs and bridges over an open sewer. It takes a lot of cheerful faces to brighten up this very un-musical setting.
It's hard to believe that more of the cast members of Oliver! didn't progress to major careers. Shani Wallis reportedly preferred live theater. Oliver Reed may have derived the most benefit from this big-scale musical. The darkly murderous Bill Sikes terrified a generation of kids that wouldn't know Reed's Hammer films and youth rebellion movies. Reed continued to make unusual smaller pictures, but also won desirable roles with directors Ken Russell and Richard Lester.
Oliver! remains Carol Reed's most popular picture after The Third Man. His only musical, it won him a Best Director Oscar just as his career was winding down. I wish some company would release a Region 1 disc of Reed's mysterious Outcast of the Islands, which is still the most uncompromising film adaptation of Joseph Conrad.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Oliver! gives us a sterling HD encoding of Sony's solid transfer of this famous Best Picture winner. The presentation comes with Overture, En'tracte and Exit music cues as per the original Road Show release. There isn't a false move in Oswald Morris's camerawork. We do smile a bit when some cutaways in a musical number tilt the camera a bit -- the widescreen format is less forgiving of Carol Reed's favored Dutch angles.
The disc contains a number of extras that may have been prepared for a foreign release. A docu addresses the filming and interviews are offered with Ron Moody and Mark Lester. Video-originated extras provide sing-alongs with the songs, and even some expert dance instructions for three of the dance numbers. A trailer is present, along with Twilight Time's traditional (when available) Isolated Score Track. In this case, the only track available was a 4.0 channel (three across and one surround) music & effects stem -- the film's original music masters are no longer around.
Julie Kirgo's production notes remind us that Oliver! came out in year dominated by tough-minded pictures, often with hard political messages. It would be another year before the Academy began to look beyond 'quality' pictures for its most prestigious award.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Oliver! Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.