This 1968 musical is surely one of the great Hollywood old-fashioned lavish crowd-pleasers of the classic studio era. Adapted from Dickens’ novel and transplanted from the stage show with words and music by Lionel Bart, it’s a triumphant example of how to translate stage magic to the big screen. OLIVER also contain a gallery of star performances whose actors would be made by them and indelibly be associated for the rest of their careers...
The plot is surely known to all, being the tale of the orphaned work-house boy of unlikely goodness who falls in with a bad crowd, and even when adopted, struggles to escape the clutches of temporary criminal friends.
The songs are a cavalcade of hits, not a dud in the pack. The opening ‘Food Glorious Food’ sets us up for the epic scale of the marvellous choreography on offer as the workhouse boys tramp in malnourished military form with a hymn to the pleasures of good nosh denied them. ‘Boy for Sale’ allows Harry Secombe, (who would have previously been best known as Neddie Seagoon of the Goons) to shine with his tremendous Welsh tenor as Mr Bumble, the Beadle. There’s a great cameo from Leonard Rossiter as the undertaker Mr Sowerberry supported by another sitcom gem Hylda Baker as his wife.
Mark Lester makes a sweet, guileless Oliver. His singing is tentative and lightly feminine, which is no surprise as it only emerged twenty years later that his song vocals were dubbed by Kathe Green, the daughter of the film’s musical director Johnny Green as Lester was deemed to be tone deaf.
An amazingly assured contrast is Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, his shady new companion. Wild is so confident and worldly in his technique that it’s easy to forget he was a young boy and not an child/adult like Gary Coleman. It’s also hard to believe that whilst he was in the West End company of OLIVER, he was relegated to the boys’ chorus as they thought he was too short for greater roles. Luckily, director Carol Reed was a better judge of talent.
The Dodger is the connection that passes our innocent hero to the lead villain Fagin; a career-defining and much loved portrayal of roguish charm by Ron Moody, easily one of the most celebrated musical film performances of all time – just winner of one of the film’s six Academy Awards. He is a multi-layered, endlessly inventive whirlwind as the king of a den of child thieves. One moment he shouts gruffly at his gang to keep them in line, the next he can dance with fingerless-gloved delicacy and seduce anyone to the dark side of criminality. There is real soulfulness too in his eyes. Watch his reaction as he is forced to see Bill strike Oliver, or his inner conflict in the show-stopping ‘Reviewing the Situation’ as he considers the possibility of a life going straight. Moody was accused of anti-semitism in his mannerisms and speech as Fagin and yet these embellishments give a richness that is partly what made his playing of the part so memorable. I was lucky enough to see Jonathan Pryce’s version in the 1994 revival and as excellent as he was, by avoiding any ethnic troubles in his ‘piratical’ take on the role, it did lose some of the characterful touches that made Moody such a definitive imprint.
Shani Wallis, who had a solid musical theatre background, makes a gutsy and heartfelt Nancy. She superbly conveys a loyal blue-collar woman of the School of Hard Knocks. With the benefit of a supposedly more enlightened present, her two numbers ‘It’s a Fine Life’ and ‘As Long As He Needs Me’ sit a little awkwardly though, as they inadvertently defend domestic violence. It’s not easy to see without wincing her cheerful shrug in the first song: “You can always cover one till he blacks the other one/But you don’t dare cry!” sans any kind of irony.
The man Nancy is willing to tolerate such unacceptable cruelty for? Why, it’s none other than the smouldering bad-boy of British cinema Oliver Reed as Bill Sykes, with the lovable pit-bull Bullseye in tow. Reed menaces softly like the glowing embers of a fire, but is quick to burn and use his cudgel when inflamed by the crafty dissembling of Fagin or the back-talking of Nancy. The director (his Uncle Carol) wisely opted not to have Reed since his signature tune ‘ My Name’ from the stage version - If you’ve seen him crooning in the film of TOMMY (1975) you’ll know why, but since the melody appears in the Overture medley, it suggests the song was filmed before being deleted.
The high-budget gloss of OLIVER is partly what conveys that Golden Era feel to the film I mentioned earlier. The Oscar-winning art/set design by John Box and Terence Marsh is breath-taking and has noticeable depth of perspective in the gorgeously detailed sets. The London wharf and city street set- pieces are even more impressive when you consider this was when they were all physically built and shown in-camera, not mapped in later as CGI. As Fagin and the Dodger reunite and head off for adventures new, it’s into a lovingly-created sunset.
Also, the dynamic choreography deserves equal mention - there’s something about the joyful explosion of a scene’s full populace into precise stylised dance moves that transports you back to a type of film entertainment hardly ever attempted in our more cynical age? The stand-out example for me is ‘Who Will Buy?’ where the street vendors’ dancing beautifully augments the wonderful blended separate character vocals.
Amidst the welcome sugar-coating, there’s even a trace of the Hammer-style macabre at the climax – and I’m not talking about Oliver Reed’s mutton chops which are almost a practise run for the later lycanthropic burners in LEGEND OF THE WEREWOLF. After Sykes is hounded by the city’s people brandishing torches, reminiscent itself of the climatic face-offs between villagers and monster in the old Universal FRANKENSTEIN movies, he is shot – and hangs bodily from the impromptu creaking gibbet in a strikingly grim tableau. Not every criminal gets away with it.
Incidentally, musical trivia fans might like to know that Lionel Bart sold the rights to the show for a pittance when at the height of debt problems, which meant he would have seen no benefit from all the future productions of his masterpiece; but when Sir Cameron Mackintosh began his series of revivals of OLIVER, he made a provision that Bart would receive an unknown slice of the profits from then on.
OLIVER is a brilliant, handsomely-mounted movie musical and richly deserved its critical acclaim, awards and box office bonanza…