Oliver! Is a musical motion picture based on the stage musical of the same name which is turn is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The movie version, released in 1968 won six Oscars from eleven nominations and forty-five years later remains one of the most popular musicals of all time. I have some problems with the central character and the acting and if I’m honest I can’t stand the overblown amateur dramatic feeling to some of the scenes but even I must say that Oliver! features a great story and some wonderful direction. The songs also do nothing for me but the final act is built up towards a tense and surprisingly terrifying conclusion.
Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) is an orphan, living in that wickedest of Victorian institutions, the Workhouse. He is sold to an Undertaker but mistreated and escapes to London where he falls in with a pickpocket called Artful Dodger (Jack Wild) and his boss/carer Fagin (Ron Moody). Oliver is caught and tried for a crime he didn’t commit and taken into the care of a wealthy benefactor but worried he will talk about who and what he has seen, fiendish criminal Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) is desperate to take him back to Fagin.
Oliver! is 153 minutes long and it took me about 100 minutes before I stopped hating the movie. At the beginning and to be honest, throughout the whole film, I really disliked Mark Lester and his Oliver. I had no sympathy for the character at all. That probably sounds really mean considering he is a little orphan but the character and acting made me feel really cold towards him. I think that Lester’s acting is awful, especially when put next to Jack Wild’s Dodger. I disliked his high pitched Home Counties voice which sounded nothing like what you’d expect from a kid who had spent his entire life in a Workhouse and his singing voice was ear piercingly high pitched and annoying. I have since learned that Mark Lester didn’t actually sing the vocals but they were in fact dubbed by Kathe Green, the twenty year old daughter of Music Arranger Johnny Green. Lester’s poor performance and inability to sing reminded me of Audrey Hepburn’s turn in another Oscar winner My Fair Lady.
Because of my lack of interest in the central character I was never that bothered by the plot developments until late on. The final half an hour though is excellent and scared me rotten as a child. Following the savage beating of one character, another goes on the run with Oliver before being shot and left hanging from a wooden beam, his limp and lifeless body gently swinging above the gathered crowd. This was one of the shots which I’d remembered from my childhood and terrified me when I was young. Considering the fairly light hearted pick pocketing and singing that comes before, it’s a drastic and dramatic turn towards something darker. It still shocked me now I’m fully grown with hair in all the right places.
There are very few musicals whose songs I enjoy. I think this probably has something to do with the frequency with which they are played and the type of people who sing them. It also has something to do with the fact that they sound nothing like Led Zeppelin so aren’t really my cup of tea. The Rocky Horror Show is pretty much the only musical soundtrack I can listen to without feeling bored or angry. The songs in Oliver! are amongst the best known in musical film history and most people would recognise the likes of Food, Glorious Food, Pick a Pocket or Two and I’d Do Anything. Most of the singers sound good although it was sometimes annoying to hear them sing through their Mockney accents. I won’t be searching out the soundtrack anytime soon though and unlike when I saw My Fair Lady a few months ago, none of the songs have become lodged in my head.
Possibly my favourite thing about Oliver! are the sets. The production took over the entire lot of the huge Shepperton Studios and created some wonderfully lifelike and detailed sets. Although they aren’t recognisable to modern day London and don’t look 100% realistic for the period, they have a slight fantasy look about them which works within the confines of the narrative. The sets encompass a wide variety of locations from the spacious middle class areas to the cramp and decrepit place which Fagin and the other boys call home. There isn’t a bad set in the film and I was often more interested in what was behind and around the actors than what they were doing themselves. Despite not being a fan of the overblown all singing, all dancing type of musical in which hordes of characters enter the scene, jumping and dancing around, I thought that the direction of these scenes were superb. Initially I was just annoyed about all the Policemen jumping around and bricklayers, milk maids and flower sellers moving in unison but once I thought about the effort and talent that must have gone into producing such set pieces I started to enjoy them more. I still don’t buy a bunch of maids singing about a wonderful morning while cleaning rugs though.
Aside from Mark Lester the rest of the principle cast are pretty good. Ron Moody and Jack Wild both received Oscar nominations for their roles as Fagin and Dodger respectively. These are well deserved. The two have a good chemistry and I was especially impressed with Moody. Oliver Reed was wonderfully grumpy and mean spirited and I loved his straight, non theatrical depiction of Sykes. Compared with all the singing and dancing around him, his quiet and dangerous portrayal felt even scarier because of his relative lack of movement. Shani Wallis was ok as Nancy and I cared for her character more than a lot of the others and Harry Secombe was enjoyable as Mr. Bumble.
Overall I can’t say I enjoyed much of Oliver! but I can appreciate the craft that went into constructing it. The set pieces are very well done and it ends superbly while the story itself is a classic. Despite not enjoying his performance, Mark Lester has become iconic in the role and luckily he is surrounded by fine performances from the rest of the cast. I don’t like the songs but the sets are great and I can understand why it won so many awards and is loved by millions.
- Some dance numbers required the sets to be altered slightly up to twelve times.
- Although Ron Moody played Fagin to great acclaim on the stage, he was only offered the screen role after Peter Sellers and Peter O'Toole turned the role down.
- Oliver is one of ten musicals to win Best Picture at the Oscars but was the last for 34 years before Chicago's 2002 win.
- Some scenes took 50 or more takes to perfect.
- Michael Caine auditioned for the role of Bill Sykes.