Although Oliver had been brought up by philosophers, he was not theoretically acquainted with the beautiful axiom that self-preservation is the first law of nature
Oliver! is directed by Carol Reed and is based on the stage musical of the same name, with both the film and the stage musical being based on Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist. The film stars Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, Harry Secombe, Shani Wallis, Mark Lester, and Jack Wild. It won six Oscars among eleven nominations which included Best Director for Reed along with Best Picture.
The 1960s were quite the time for movie musicals, and boy did they love to be the most cheery and grandiose events you would ever see. A whopping four Best Picture winners of the 1960s were musicals, with Carol Reed's Oliver! coming last after West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music. It's too bad that Oliver! ended up being the worst of the four, not having the aging capabilities of those other three musicals and also not containing enough robust star power nor memorable musical numbers. And while there are plenty of worse films to be graced with the most prestigious Oscar, Oliver! can't help but now be one of the lower entries on the totem pole.
I must comment on the inclusion of an exclamation point in the title, because titling the movie just Oliver apparently wasn't going to fly for Reed. Oh no, there must be an exclamation point to let us know that the titular Oliver is such a precious gem to be admired by people of all ages. The boy is so wonderful and so one-of-a-kind that an exclamation must be used to let us know that this isn't just any ordinary Oliver; this is the Oliver, and you best not ever forget it. Exclamation points are a rare thing in movie titles, and for something like Oliver!, it implies a sense of self-importance that tells us that the filmmakers were so damn proud of what they made that they feel entitled to the inclusion of an exclamation point.
Anyway, Oliver! tells the story of the young orphan boy, Oliver Twist (Mark Lester), who lives in an unpleasant workhouse with many other orphan boys. During one of the meals, Oliver goes up to the workhouse runners, Bumble (Harry Secombe) and Widow Corney (Peggy Mount), and asks for more food in the famous, "Please sir. I want some more" scene. The outraged Bumble takes Oliver to the workhouse governors to see what is to be done with him. The decision is for Oliver to be sold into service. Bumble sells Oliver to an undertaker named Mr. Sowerberry (Leonard Rossiter), who plans to use Oliver as a mourner for children's funerals. Oliver attacks Sowerberry's apprentice, Noah (Kenneth Cranham), after Noah insults Oliver's mother. Oliver is then thrown into a cellar, but he escapes after finding a loose grate on one of the windows.
The runaway Oliver eventually makes his way to London, where he meets the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Dodger takes Oliver to his home: a hideout for a group of young boys. The boys are housed by the elderly Fagin (Ron Moody), all who are experienced in the art of pickpocketing. Oliver soon begins to take on the group like a family, until things start to get messy when Fagin's business partner, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), gets mixed up with Oliver and the boys' pickpocketing ways.
- The most impressive thing about Oliver! is its ability to get the most out of its long lineup of child actors, all who possess the acting and music chops to transcend the unacceptably low standards people seem to set for child actors. The one exception is the singing of Oliver, which was dubbed by Kathe Green, the daughter of the film's music supervisor, Johnny Green. Mark Lester was considered "tone deaf and arrhythmic" and therefore incapable of doing his own singing, but considering that Kathe Green's singing sounds like a reedy 10 year old girl giving the worst audition of her life, I seriously refuse to believe that Lester's singing would have been that much worse. Thankfully, Oliver doesn't do a whole lot of singing, and the other boys are more than capable of making up for Oliver's musical shortcomings.
- Oliver! gave me a strange reminder of an older Best Picture film: Mrs. Miniver, a film whose titular character got lost in a focus so wide that she succumbs to the well-meaning but slightly misguided ambitions of the filmmakers. The titular Oliver suffers from largely the same fate. Once all of the major characters are brought into the picture, Oliver is almost relegated to side character, as he spends a good chunk of the time just standing and admiring all of the antics going on around him. During the second half of the movie, poor Oliver spends most of the time getting dragged around like a rag doll by Bill Sikes, and he shows little to no resistance, let alone do much of anything to try and escape on his own. Might I add that this was the same boy who successfully shoved a grown man to the ground within the film's first 20-25 minutes? Oliver gets lost in the crowd, with the majority of the musical numbers going to characters not named Oliver. You can't have a convincing main character if they do nothing but just stand around and watch what's happening around them. If that's all they do, then why are they the central focus of the film?
- Oliver! also suffers from one of the worst problems that a musical movie can have: being too showy and thus looking more suitable for the theater stage. The "Consider Yourself" number is the prime example of this low point, with the number going on and on with as many wacky dances as can be. I especially loved the London police force patrolling the streets by moving together in synchronized dance movements. Wouldn't they be the last ones to partake in the musical dance number that introduces Oliver to one of the pickpocketing thieves? The "Who Will Buy" number is another good example, kicking off the second Act with a circus of people parading the streets with no rhyme or reason, only serving to bloat up the run time with an almost pointless number that fuels no character development nor meaningful plot progression.
I almost wish Oliver! was a lot more terrible than it actually is, because it would go perfectly in line with a lot of previous Best Picture winners that, by this point, I actually kind of enjoy ripping apart. The whole thing has enough acting prowess to pass off as decent, but the movie has an inability to maintain the focus on its titular character and avoid excessive theatrics in order to earn the kind of prestige that a lot of other 60's musicals have. Believe it or not, but this would be the last musical to win Best Picture for over thirty years, despite the fact that several other musicals were nominated over that time span. Maybe Oliver! could have been much, much more than a musical. That's something only time could have told, and unfortunately for Oliver!, time is not its best friend.
Recommend? If you're a huge fan of older musicals, I'd give this one a watch. Otherwise, no.
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