Oliver!

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Oliver! (1968)

Mar 18, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:sets, costumes, casting

Cons:overproduced songs, some story elements don't work

I am not prejudiced against musicals. Some of my best friends are musicals. These include Singin' in the Rain (1952), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

But I have to admit, I am not fond of Oliver!, the highly successful British musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic "Oliver Twist".

In many ways, Oliver! is an excellent musical. The costumes and sets are very good, the songs have memorable melodies, and the choreography is exuberant. The casting is good as well, although Mark Lester is a bit precious and weak-voiced in the leading role.

I particularly liked Oliver Reed as the sinister Bill Sykes, and loose-limbed Ron Moody is entertaining as the pickpocket headmaster and miser Fagin. Harry Secombe has a brief role as Mr. Bumble, a pompous official at Oliver's workhouse orphanage, but he has a booming voice worthy of an opera.

The director was Carol Reed, who back in 1949 had made the film noir classic The Third Man. That was perhaps the best British-produced film ever made. Carol Reed was the uncle of Oliver Reed, who had done such a good job starring in the satire I'll Never Forget What's 'is Name from the year before.

But with all that it has going for it, I still can't say that Oliver! is a good film.

One problem common to many musicals is that the songs are overproduced and seem artificial. That is the case with Oliver! as well. "Who Will Buy" starts out with one woman selling roses. But soon the lot is filled with barkers, swirling around each other in front of Oliver's balcony. They're trying to sell things, but instead take up Oliver's faint verse about putting 'the wonderful morning in a box for me'. There's no need for such overblown production, designed to impress with its very scale. Some of the other songs are strident ("As Long as He Needs Me"), mindless singalongs ("Oom-Pah-Pah"), or tedious ("Where Is Love?").

My other concerns may seem petty, but perhaps they add up. The Artful Dodger spends his days as a pickpocket, all the while wearing a highly conspicuous top hat. Sykes is completely detestable, yet good-hearted Nancy (Shani Wallis) loves him and lives with him. There's the amazing coincidence of Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O'Conor) being both the pickpocket victim leading to Oliver's arrest, and his long lost uncle. Mr. Brownlow, as good luck would have it, is very wealthy and more than eager to provide Oliver with a happy ending.

Oliver himself is the sweetest little boy despite his life of hardship without family. Although he becomes just one of Fagin's many criminal urchins, he quickly becomes the center of attention. Sykes chooses him for a burglary despite his inexperience, and already demonstrated incompetence. Fagin is portrayed as a sympathetic, even kindly person, despite being a career criminal, a fence for burglars, and a trainer of countless juvenile delinquents.

However, my opinion is definitely in the minority. Most people (including critics) have proclaimed Oliver! as a masterpiece.

It certainly cleaned up at the 1969 Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Best Director, Best Score (John Green), Best Art Direction and Best Sound. The film was nominated for another six Oscars, including Best Actor (Ron Moody), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Wild), Best Adapted Screenplay (Vernon Harris), Best Cinematography (Oswald Morris), Best Costume Design and Best Film Editing. (54/100)



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