Oliver! won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1968, and picked up another five: Best Director (Carol Reed), Best Musical Adaptation Score, Best Art Direction, Best Sound and a special award for choreographer Onna White. It lost in five other categories.

The other Best Picture nominees were Funny Girl, The Lion In Winter, Rachel, Rachel and Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. IMDB users have not rated it as highly as Oscar voters did, placing it 11th on one system and 18th on the other2001: A Space Odyssey, Once Upon a Time in the West, Rosemary’s Baby, Planet of the Apes, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Bullitt, Night of the Living Dead, Where Eagles Dare and Hang ‘Em High. It’s a good year for my cinematic education; apart from 2001, I have also seen The Lion In Winter, Romeo and Juliet, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Where Eagles Dare, Barbarella, Yellow Submarine, Lady in Cement, The Girl on a Motorcycle, and Winnie-the-Pooh and the Blustery Day (many many times).

Youtube claims that this is an original trailer:

We’ve had a run of Oscar winners set in some version or another of Merrie England: Around the World in Eighty Days, Tom Jones, My Fair Lady and A Man for All Seasons (OK, that last not quite so merrie). We have also had quite a number of musicals – The Broadway Melody, Going My Way, An American in Paris, Gigi, West Side Story, My Fair Lady (again) and The Sound of Music. This is the last of either for a while; catching the end of the Zeitgeist perhaps. As if you didn’t know, it’s an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist, about an orphan boy who is seduced into a life of crime but finds respectability and happiness.

The curtailing of the original title and extra exclamation mark has been mocked elsewhere – The Tall Guy features a musical adaptation of The Elephant Man called, inevitably, Elephant!, and Simon Brett’s novel Star Trap more obscurely has a musical adaptation of She Stoops to Conquer with the title Lumpkin! There were not really all that many musicals of the time with names in that format; a quick check comes up with Blitz! (also by Lionel Bart), Carnival!, Donnybrook!, and Twang!! (again by Bart, with two exclamation marks, and a complete fiasco).

We have one actor here returning for a third Oscar-winning role: Hugh Griffith, who was Squire Western in Tom Jones and Sheikh Ilderim in Ben-Hur, here plays a drunken but unnamed magistrate (Mr Fang in Dickens’ novel).

A couple of other appearances of note. Harry Secombe, of the Goons, plays Mr Bumble the Beadle. Many years later his grand-daughter was briefly our au pair. (She gave showbiz a try, but is now working in academic administration.)

And another familiar face, Mr Sowerberry the undertaker, is played by Leonard Rossiter, later famous as Reggie Perrin but previously seen in this same year’s Hugo winner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, as a Russian scientist.

Mrs Bumble is played by Peggy Mount, who shows up twenty years later in the surreal Doctor Who story The Greatest Show in the Galaxy as a stallkeeper.

And to my delight one of the paupers doling out the gruel is played by Roy Evans, who pops up everywhere, as an alien delegate and two different doomed miners in Doctor Who, as a baker in Here Come the Double Deckers! and as a doomed slave in the second season of Blake’s 7.

I’m putting Oliver! between a quarter and a third of the way down my list of Oscar winners, below The Apartment but above Ben-Hur. It’s generally very entertaining, but I am a bit bothered by the anti-Semitism of Fagin and the rather passive title character. I should also note that apparently Shirley Bassey, who reached number two for 5 weeks on the United Kingdom charts with “As Long As He Needs Me” in 1960, was one of the original candidates for Nancy, but was thought to be too black (there is not a single visible minority actor in the film – Tom Jones, filmed five years before and set a century earlier, did better). Having said that, Shani Wallis is very very good as Nancy in the film.

Though Oliver Reed is a bit one-note as Bill Sykes, and it’s not at all clear what Nancy can see in him.

Despite one’s reservations about the Fagin character, Ron Moody makes him really interesting and the performance was enough to get him offered the role of Doctor Who the next year (he turned it down; Jon Pertwee took it).

Here he is, picking a pocket or two.
And despite the annying passivity of the title character, Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger turns in the best performance of a child actor we have seen since the young Roddy MacDowell in How Green Was My Valley (though there haven’t been a lot – the kids in The Sound of Music and Going My Way, and that’s about it).

The whole thing does look very convincing, and in particular, the music is very catchy (I remember playing selections from it with the Belfast Youth Orchestra back in the day) and the choreography is spectacular. “Consider Yourself” is the one that stuck in my mind from seeing this as a teenager.

But the other one that really struck me was “Who Will Buy”, Oliver’s reorientation song at the beginning of the second act. I feel that it somewhat jars the overall mood of the film a bit, but again is is just spectacular to watch, and it is very interesting musically.

So yeah, the last musical and last film set in Merrie Englande for a while, after a run with quite a lot of them. You can get it here.

I went back and reread the book. It is long. The second paragraph of the third chapter is:

Let it not be supposed by the enemies of “the system,” that, during the period of his solitary incarceration, Oliver was denied the benefit of exercise, the pleasure of society, or the advantages of religious consolation. As for exercise, it was nice cold weather, and he was allowed to perform his ablutions every morning under the pump, in a stone yard, in the presence of Mr. Bumble, who prevented his catching cold, and caused a tingling sensation to pervade his frame, by repeated applications of the cane. As for society, he was carried every other day into the hall where the boys dined, and there sociably flogged as a public warning and example. And so far from being denied the advantages of religious consolation, he was kicked into the same apartment every evening at prayer-time, and there permitted to listen to, and console his mind with, a general supplication of the boys, containing a special clause, therein inserted by authority of the board, in which they entreated to be made good, virtuous, contented, and obedient, and to be guarded from the sins and vices of Oliver Twist: whom the supplication distinctly set forth to be under the exclusive patronage and protection of the powers of wickedness, and an article direct from the manufactory of the very Devil himself.

When I first read it in 2010, I wrote:

One of several classic Dickens books which I had not previously read, and which eventually worked to the top of my list. I am sure that it was spell-binding social commentary in 1838, but the character of Oliver seemed to me much too good to be true. Any child coming from that sort of brutal institutionalised background would have pretty serious psychological issues; in fact all Oliver need is a comfortable bed and a cuddle and he turns into an angel. The implication is that Oliver, as a Good Boy, is therefore part of the deserving poor, and the Artful Dodger and so on, as Bad Boys, are part of the undeserving poor, a distinction I find rather invidious – copper-fastened at the end by the fact that Oliver does inherit wealth, but on condition of his goodness rather than his absolute rights as his parents’ son. There seems little room for redemption, and Nancy, the fallen woman who tries to redeem herself, gets killed off. The portrayal of Fagin must surely have appeared gratuitously anti-Semitic even by 1838 standards. I’m glad that I have read and enjoyed later Dickens, because I think if I had started here I would have written him off.

What struck me forcefully this time is that the interval of the film/musical, well over half-way through, comes at a point which is only 20% into the book. So (to save you the maths) the original plot is compressed roughly six times as much in the second act as in the first. And it’s a wise choice by Lionel Bart; there are various tedious sub-plots around Oliver’s true identity and the bad guys comin’ to get him, and it’s not really all that interesting.

Anyway, you can get it here.

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)

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