OBPC #41: Oliver!, 1968

Rating: 2 stars (out of 4)

Oliver! (1968): Dir. Carol Reed.  Written by: Vernon Harris.  Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart.  Based upon the musical of the same name with book, music, and lyrics by Bart, itself based upon the novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  Starring: Mark Lester, Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Shani Wallis, and Jack Wild.  Rated G.  Running time: 153 minutes.

Oliver!It was back to the movie musical for the Academy, after the socially turbulent year of 1968.  Previously filmed as a straight adaptation by David Lean, the story of Oliver Twist came alive in a new way to a much larger audience.

Set in early nineteenth century England, Oliver! records the odyssey of a hapless young orphan whose only asset seems to be his adorableness.  Unceremoniously removed from the orphanage, he works his way into many families of varying social class and manner.  With each change comes yet another musical number.

Director Reed and his design team painstakingly recreate early 1800s London in all its grimy glory.  Reed displays the same talent he had for setting and atmosphere as he did in the more famous film gem The Third Man—shadows and faces can tell so much more than words.  He commands a large cast with—Ron Moody as Fagin and Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes are the standouts with their ability to show those rare human moments that keep them from caricature.

Yet there’s something off with the film’s priorities—the songs are too hopeful and often spiral into schamltz.  And like My Fair Lady, its songs fail to comment on the original work—they seem to exist in a world devoid of context.  I’m sorry to say Mark Lester as Oliver doesn’t have the charisma to carry the role (it’s a pity modern day child actors like Asa Butterfield or Jared Gilman weren’t alive to take it).  And his lip syncing?  Rather embarrassing.

I’m not opposed to turning classic works into musicals, but they must be done with some consistency of tone and mood.  Oliver! is prone to distraction, attempting to please a mass audience, but missing its chance to mine the humor and edginess of its rich source material.

Next film: Midnight Cowboy, 1969

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