As a lover of musicals, how could I not include one of the few to win the Best Picture Academy Award? I’ve enjoyed watching Oliver! since I was a kid, and I never tire of its alternately rousing and fun musical numbers and Onna White’s outstanding choreography, which was awarded a special Oscar as well. As an adaptation of a stage musical based on Dickens’s book Oliver Twist, the film hits all the right notes of the story while serving up memorable characters and some of my favorite stage songs.
Mark Lester is downright adorable as Oliver, and though his voice is weak (I’ve read he was actually dubbed by the musical director’s daughter), it captures his gentle fragility. Ron Moody originated the role of Fagin on stage, and he earned and deserved a Best Actor nomination for his sneaky yet strangely sympathetic performance. Jack Wild was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Artful Dodger; Harry Secombe is an excellent operatic Mr. Bumble; and Shani Wallis plays the lovely Nancy, emoting her inner conflict between doing the right thing for Oliver and submitting to her abusive man. Other adaptations have tried to make Bill Sikes intimidating, but Oliver Reed is the best, progressing from a stoic punk to a coldblooded murderer. Considering how fun most of the music is, the film’s climax is surprisingly tense (or maybe I’m just afraid of heights).
The Oscar- and Tony-winning score really is the best part. Because of it, Oliver! ranks among my VC’s top 20 movies; she once bought the soundtrack and the sheet music and even saw a dinner theater production. Most great musicals still have an occasional dud, but even the slower songs are excellent and further the story’s plot or emotional development. Some songs have the stage quality of being restricted to a single room, while others take full advantage of the space and freedom that musical cinema affords. The first song “Food, Glorious Food” begins the film on a somber high note, but the film’s grandeur truly begins with the sprawling welcome of “Consider Yourself,” which is a wonder of set design, choreography, and Oscar-winning direction. I always enjoy Fagin’s numbers, “You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two” and “Reviewing the Situation,” while my VC is partial to Nancy’s, particularly “It’s a Fine Life” and the euphemistic “Oom-Pah-Pah.” My favorite, though, would have to be “Who Will Buy?” at the beginning of the second half, a gradually building, layered song which becomes another stunningly choreographed spectacle and which I’ve caught myself singing a few times.
One of the last great Golden Age musicals and the last G-rated Best Picture winner, Oliver! captures the unfair cruelty that was the point of Dickens’s novel, while balancing humor, tension, Oscar-worthy sets and costumes, and amazing music to create one of the finest musical adaptations.
Best line: (Oliver Twist) “Please, sir, may I have some … more?” (followed by Mr. Bumble’s) “More?!”
VC’s best line: (a drunk Mr. Sowerberry, when Oliver’s cruel foster family have trapped him in a coffin) “Well, having a rest, Mr. Bumble?” (Noah) “He’s sitting on Oliver.” (Mr. Sowerberry) “Quite right, we must all sit on Oliver.”Rank: 58 out of 60
© 2014 S. G. Liput
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