Hanna: My Movie of the Month pick began with a grave mistake. My intention was to introduce the crew to one of the first musicals I ever watched, which held a prized position in my family’s VHS collection: Sir Carol Reed’s Oliver! (1968), the film adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’s serialized novel Oliver Twist. I’ve probably seen it at least five times, although not since I was 10 or 11. Roman Polanski made his own Oliver Twist adaptation in 2005, and for some ungodly reason, I somehow melded his version with the Reed musical; I proceeded to tell many people (including the Swampflix crew) that Polanski’s version was one of my childhood favorites. I finally picked it for the Movie of the Month, so James, Brandon, Britnee and I settled in my apartment on a rainy Tuesday to dive into Oliver. After puzzling over basic elements of the film (including the lack of musical numbers, the jarring difference in tone, the striking unfamiliarity of the lead actors, and the realization that I was only 12 when the Polanski version came out), I got the sneaking suspicion that I had picked the wrong movie; after the first fifteen minutes passed without a single song, I was finally able to admit my mistake, but everyone agreed to finish the film anyway. Two days later we settled in for Oliver!, which I (thankfully) found to be just as delightful as I remembered. I’m honored to have undergone this Oliver journey with those that accept me in spite of my absolutely awful memory and sense of time.
The musical basically follows Dickens’s serialized story, which brings the viewers on a tour of the various social classes in early 19th century England. We start off at a workhouse, where Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), a waifish orphan boy with a voice like a velvety little petal, is ousted from a workhouse after meekly requesting more gruel at dinner. The owner of the workhouse, Mr. Bumble, auctions Oliver off as an apprentice to the lowest bidder, who happens to be an undertaker. Oliver eventually escapes to London, where he immediately falls in with a dashing young pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild); his crew of cheerful thief children; and their adult ringleader, Fagin (Ron Moody). The child thieves have a rickety old hideout in the upper levels of an abandoned building, but their den is downright cozy; Fagin puts Oliver to bed in a torn-up basket and a couple of ratty blankets, which looked extremely inviting all things considered. It would be a child’s paradise if not for the looming presence of Bill Sikes, a horrific character played by an (unfortunately) extremely hot Oliver Reed. Bill is accompanied by the kind, ill-fated Nancy (Shani Wallis), who is responsible for 50% of my interest in this movie as a child. The bulk of the film’s tension rests on who is in possession of Oliver, and whether he’ll finally get the chance to join a happy household. At various points throughout the movie he’s sold, arrested, adopted, kidnapped, forced into burglary, and kidnapped again; apart from the stolen fineries of wealthy Londoners, he’s the hottest commodity in the film while doing basically nothing that isn’t at the behest of someone else’s will.
I think this is a great musical! The sets are big and beautiful, and a few numbers (namely “Consider Yourself” and “Who Will Buy?”) have that old Hollywood scale of extras that makes you think, “This scene was expensive!” The majority of the songs are absolute bangers; they wormed themselves into my brain many years ago and, like little sleeper agents, unfurled themselves effortlessly as the film went on. I think the thing that struck me the most was that this film makes poverty-stricken 1820s London seem like an absolute ball; I really wanted Fagin to be my grandfather and live a little life of crime when I saw this as a child. It’s especially striking after seeing the Polanski adaptation, which is absolutely mired in the muck of that period. Police dutifully trot around the city; little chimney sweeps burn their sweet little trousers; life is pure joy! Nancy’s relationship with Bill is probably the harshest aspect of the musical, and it’s also my absolute least favorite part to watch. Brandon, do you think the cheer of the musical takes away from the point of the film? Should Reed have made me feel worse for these little orphans, or do you think the musical had a balance of glee and gruel?
Brandon: I don’t have any especially strong opinions about Oliver!‘s duty to maintain the grueling tone of the Dickens source material, but I get the sense that Polanski does. His 2005 adaptation is not only more faithful to the narrative beats of the novel, it’s also a deliberate corrective to its feel-good interpretations like Oliver! and Oliver & Company. If Polanski has a discernible “take” on Oliver Twist, it’s that audiences need to be reminded of how brutal the original story was, despite its recent cheery revisionism. As a result, the 2005 version is absurdly grotesque, almost laughably so. Every single image is aimed to discomfort & disgust, to the point where it’s just as difficult to take seriously as the song & dance numbers in the family-friendly adaptations he was bucking against. The conflict between form & content in the 1968 musical is much more genuinely engaging. The circumstances of orphan life in 19th Century London are just as brutal, but the song & dance numbers are a pure delight, and there’s something oddly charming about Fagin yelling “Shut up and drink your gin!” at a room full of pipsqueak children, when that should register as a horrifying act of abuse. What’s hilarious about Polanski being bothered by that cheery incongruity is that Oliver Twist already had at least two dark & gritty updates in 1996’s Twisted and 2003’s Twist, so his 40-year-old grudge against the musical just feels like another old man complaining about nothing. And since anything that irks that particular old man is a cosmic good, I almost wish that Oliver! was even more saccharine just to irritate him further.
I am not sure if Oliver! is wonderfully grim or grimly wonderful, but it’s certainly one of the two. There’s something perverse about a big-budget Technicolor spectacle being composed entirely in a spectrum of sooty browns, as if the form and the narrative are too directly opposed for the movie to function in any sincere way. When orphans sing about starving on a pure-gruel diet, or when their caretakers sing about selling those orphans away for a pittance (so as not to waste more money on precious gruel), it’s hard to resist chuckling at its self-conflicted tone, even though what you’re watching is objectively depressing. However, as Hanna already noted, the scale of its musical set pieces is massive. It may all be a swirl of slightly varied browns, but there are often hundreds of performers filling that sooty frame, singing & dancing their workhouse lungs out. It’s not at all skimpy when doling out its extravagant song & dance numbers either (unlike how the orphanage doles out its servings of gruel). The first hour is practically a sung-through musical, offering very few words of spoken dialogue between the show-stopping musical numbers before it settles into a more traditional movie-musical rhythm. Britnee, did you have any particular favorite songs or musical moments buried in that extensive songbook? Were you at all disappointed when the movie dropped its sung-through format to include traditional spoken dialogue between those songs?
Britnee: Our accidental watch of Polanski’s Oliver Twist had me a bit concerned about watching Oliver! a few days later. How could such a grim story be converted into an enjoyable musical? Would the songs be just as dull as the setting? I was put at ease when the opening number, “Food, Glorious Food,” kicked the film off. All those dirty little paupers lining up for gruel in the most Broadway way possible? I was immediately hooked! It was so catchy and so much fun, and thankfully, the other musical numbers followed suit. I truly enjoyed each and every one of them, but my favorites are “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” and “Who Will Buy?”.
The catchiness and quirkiness of “You’ve Got to Pick A Pocket or Two” was such a good time, and it made me really enjoy Fagin’s character. Fagin in Polanski’s Oliver Twist was horrible. He was cruel and easy to dislike, but dancing, singing Fagin was the life of the party. As for “Who Will Buy?”, that was a damn masterpiece. It almost felt like a movie within a movie, and it had me so invested in all the happenings of that neighborhood. Right when I thought the scene was wrapping up, another singing group would come in and add another layer into the number. And most importantly, as the youth would say, the song slaps.
I think there was just the right number of songs peppered throughout. Not one segment of the film was more song heavy than others, which kept me excited and really held my attention. This is the sooty brown musical of my dreams! Something else worth mentioning is the beautiful set design. How the dirty London streets and filth surrounding the characters could look so gorgeous boggled my mind. Boomer, what are your thoughts on the set design? Were you as fascinated with it as I was, or did it seem too Broadway for a film?
Boomer: I might be the worst person to ask if something is “too Broadway,” because as someone who generally hates traditional musicals, I’m usually the first person to want to skedaddle the moment a half-pint starts warbling in a soprano—it’s been ten years since this happened, which is long enough that I’ll admit it, but I once left a live stage production of South Pacific during intermission despite being there in a professional capacity. I’ve professed before that I dislike musicals in general and often in principle as well, but that non-traditional musicals sometimes manage to pierce that veil (as demonstrated by my previous MotM nominations London Road and True Stories) in addition to a couple of traditional musicals that somehow manage to warm the cockles of my cold, dead heart. I think that this one manages to slip in under the radar a little for me for several reasons. Firstly, the music is actually pretty good, and I don’t feel secondhand embarrassment for the lyricist with regards to their being forced to craft dialog and exposition into certain meter and rhyme scheme; I was surprised to discover that “I’d Do Anything” came from Oliver!, as I’d always assumed it was just an old standard, but it’s actually rather lovely in this context. Secondly, it’s very evocative of two traditional screen musicals that I actually do enjoy: 1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1967’s Doctor Doolittle, both of which I loved as a child. For the former, it’s mostly that era of musical-making, where there’s a huge budget and the effects are largely practical, plus the similarity in musical styles overall; for the latter, it’s the staging. It might be a stretch to call a film that casts Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit “traditional,” but other than the presence of Muppet actors, the film takes itself fairly seriously, and that’s evident in the set design there just as it is in this movie, so I guess my answer must be “yes.” There might be something Pavlovian about my unconscious mental arithmetic of Dickens + musical = a good time because of the sheer number of times I’ve seen Michael Caine go flying through the air with Gonzo and Rizzo attached to his housecoat, but I actually enjoyed this one, and it kept my attention for almost all of its prolonged runtime.
I was not party to the fateful viewing of Polanski’s adaptation, and I won’t defend him, but I will say that I can see why there would be a desire to push back against the lyrical good times being had in this film. I’ve softened over the years with regards to my need for historical accuracy (I’d probably be more forgiving of, for instance, the Converse high tops in Marie Antoinette in 2022 than I was in 2008), but there is something to be said about the necessity of historical veracity. The thing is, Industrial Era London was horrible, possibly one of the worst times to be alive in human history outside of being directly involved in war. Poverty was rampant, the streets ran brown with human waste, sovereignty was presumed divine, and the gentry was landed. Dickens’s novels and writings were actually fundamental to encouraging empathy for the downtrodden and encouraging philanthropy in the same way that Sinclair’s The Jungle was a foundational text in the actualization of food safety (although that was not the latter author’s goal), and I can understand being annoyed at this film, which depicts chimney sweeps as just silly little dudes as opposed to children performing dangerous labor. When white supremacists prattle on about the treatment of the Irish when trying to invoke whataboutism with regards to historical injustices that continue into the present day, the inhumane circumstances of Victorian England are rarely discussed, but only because white supremacy as it exists in the contemporary United States actually exists to reinscribe current systems of power between labor and aristocracy that aren’t terribly different from their own goals (as seen by state-level Republican-led efforts to rebrand child labor as “employment of minors” and damage the laws that prevent kids from being taken advantage of by employers). When I was first reading everyone’s thoughts prior to meditating on my own response, my knee-jerk response was “Actually, depicting this with the brutal reality of that era would be the correct choice,” but the longer I sat with that idea, the more I kept thinking about “Oom-Pah-Pah” until music filled my mind so that it blotted out everything else. So for once, I’ll just enjoy the party and not be a pooper (until you get to the Lagniappe section below, I suppose).
I’ll also add that Oliver! is no Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind when it comes to whitewashing historical atrocities for the sake of storytelling, since not even the worst elements of life under Victorian aristocracy compare to chattel slavery, but I’ll end with a reminder that we can’t get too comfortable about such things and should always inspect them. Birth and Gone are products of their time, but we are never free of that kind of historical revisionism and it’s vital that we never get too comfortable with it, now more than ever. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice initiative is a great place to start, as it calls out lies in children’s literature, like Henry Cole’s Unspoken and Ramin Ganeshram’s A Birthday Cake for George Washington. The minimization of historical sins, like characterizing “Harriet Tubman [as] a very strong woman who left her farm without permission,” are part of the fascism playbook. Oliver! might get a pass, but there’s still work to be done.
Brandon: This was an educational experience in several ways, but the factoid from my Oliver! research that’s haunted me most was learning it was one of Michael Jackson’s pet obsessions. Apparently, Jackson befriended Oliver!‘s Mark Lester when they were both child-stars of the late-1960s, which led to persistent tabloid rumors that Lester was the sperm-donor biological father to Jackson’s children. A rumor that Lester himself has confirmed in interviews! It almost sounds too weird to be true, until you remember that Jackson was also so obsessed with the David Lynch film The Elephant Man that he attempted to purchase the real-life John Merick’s bones for his private collection (a bizarre venture that The London Hospital Medical College thankfully did not indulge). These are the kinds of things that keep me up at night.
Britnee: Swampflix needs to declare the first week of March as Oliver Twist Week, committing to watch a different version of Oliver Twist every year to commemorate the occasion. There’s a buttload of Oliver Twist movies out there, so we could keep it going forever!
Hanna: Taking the Oliver! of my childhood and Polanski’s faithful adaptation into consideration, I’m really drawn to and impressed by the longevity of Dickens’s original story of innocence attempting to navigate a filthy, horrifying world. I didn’t even realize how many Oliver Twist interpretations there were until Brandon kindly brought them to my attention. So, cast my vote in favor of Oliver Week so we can delve into all its many permutations. I’m glad that the Swampflix crew enjoyed meeting this sweet little orphan.
Next Month: Brandon presents The Music Lovers (1971)
-The Swampflix Crew