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Oliver Twist, first published in 1838, is one of Charles Dickens's most entertaining and popular novels, so it's not surprising that moviemakers have turned to it frequently over the years. The earliest adaptations appear to have been Vitagraph shorts in 1907 and 1909, followed by a French version in 1910, an Italian one in 1911, an American feature in 1912, a British feature in 1913, a Paramount release in 1916, a Hungarian edition in 1919, and German and Hollywood versions in 1922 - and that list accounts for the silent-film era alone! Among the many later adaptations, standouts include the 1948 classic by David Lean, with Alec Guinness as Fagin and John Howard Davies as Oliver, and the beautifully rendered 2005 edition by Roman Polanski, with Ben Kingsley as Fagin and Barney Clark as the title character. Animations and several TV versions, including Tony Bill's 1997 production with Richard Dreyfuss as Fagin and Alex Trench as Oliver, have also entered the sweepstakes. Ditto for Carol Reed's 1968 musical Oliver!, based on the London and Broadway stage hit and starring Mark Lester as the eponymous kid.
The busiest year for Oliver Twist movies was 1922, when versions from both Germany and Hollywood reached the screen. The star of the American edition was Jackie Coogan, eight years old and already a seasoned performer with eight pictures under his belt (including The Kid , the Charles Chaplin dramedy that made him a star) plus his own company, Jackie Coogan Productions, to produce some of his films. Oliver Twist was the company's third venture - released by First National Pictures, directed by the hugely prolific Frank Lloyd, and featuring Lon Chaney, the master of makeup and menace, as Fagin, one of Dickens's most memorable villains. At a brisk 74 minutes, it leaves out countless details of Dickens's novel; but it makes up in colorful acting and creative cinematic touches what it lacks in Dickensian length.
The familiar story begins with Oliver's birth to a poor and friendless young mother. She dies immediately afterward, so the infant is shipped off to the kind of orphanage for which Victorian England was notorious - not a place for nurturance and growth but a heartless workhouse where the value of mindless drudgery and obedience are beaten into the bodies and minds of miserable, defenseless children. Nominated by the other inmates to request a larger helping of gruel at dinner, Oliver angers Mr. Bumble, the place's tyrannical boss, and flees the institution to live on his own at the tender age of nine.
Making the long trek to London on foot, Oliver comes upon the highly unusual household of Fagin, an unmitigated scoundrel whose "children" learn to steal and pick pockets under his instruction. Apprehended at the scene of a crime and brought to court, Oliver is lucky enough to be exonerated by an eyewitness named Mr. Brownlow, who takes him under his wing and gives him the first proper, decent home he has ever had. Furious at losing the boy, however, Fagin sends his accomplice Bill Sikes and Bill's girlfriend Nancy, a good-hearted prostitute, to snatch Oliver from the streets and return him to the criminal fold. After various other adventures - involving Nancy's dislike of Fagin, a spy sent to report on her, a mysterious stranger called Monks, and a botched burglary with deadly results - our hero goes back to Mr. Brownlow, learns of his true parentage and identity, and embarks on a happy new life while Fagin rots in jail.
Lloyd's screen version starts with a disclaimer that Victorians would have welcomed and movie censors would have demanded, assuring us that even though several characters are crooks and Nancy is a prostitute, the story's morality is solid because Oliver survives these bad influences with his ethics and innocence intact. No such statement is necessary by today's standards - or any standards, really - since Oliver Twist is upright to its core. It paints a dramatic portrait of horrific abuses that were prevalent in Dickens's day, however, and its depiction of children being exploited by cruel, callous adults is still powerful if you think about the realities behind the fiction. The movie seems artificial and stagy at times, but its most creative sequences are vivid reminders of society's capacity for making egregious errors where basic human rights are concerned. Dickens was a generous and progressive thinker whose portrayals of social evils and family woes drew on his own dire experiences as a child who knew what it was like to put in ten-hour days at dirty, arduous work just to keep body and soul together.
Coogan gives a spirited performance as Oliver, although the character is more compelling when he's a grimy and grubby urchin than when he's spiffed up by his benefactors. Chaney doesn't get a lot of screen time as Fagin, but he makes a strong impression when he does appear, and the last shot of him in his dismal prison cell is poignant and chilling at once. Edouard Trebaol is fine as the Fagin protg called the Artful Dodger, a role played in the past by such talented actors as Anthony Newley and Elijah Wood, and Gladys Brockwell makes Nancy as sympathetic as can be. Others in the cast include George Siegmann as Bill Sikes, physically towering over Nancy in a way that underscores his bullying nature; James Marcus as Mr. Bumble, the petty, portly despot of the workhouse; Lionel Belmore as Mr. Brownlow, a lovely fellow in every way; and Carl Stockdale as Monks, the enigmatic outsider who plays an important part in shaping Oliver's destiny.
Oliver Twist also benefits from imaginative visual touches, as when Oliver has visions of a dancing bowl and spoon when he's hungry in the workhouse, and when he relives a moment of sweet revenge against a nasty older boy in a dream that sets him punching and flailing all over again. Lloyd may deserve chief credit for these scenes, but they also reflect the personality of producer Sol Lesser, a longtime specialist in unpretentious entertainment for family audiences, then in the early stage of his career. Lloyd and Lesser turned out a stylish and energetic adaptation of a novel that fully deserves its lofty reputation.
Director: Frank Lloyd
Producer: Sol Lesser
Screenplay: Frank Lloyd and Harry Weil, adapted from the novel by Charles Dickens
Cinematographers: Glen MacWilliams and Robert Martin
Film Editing: Irene Morra
Settings: Stephen Goosson
Music: John Muri (1975)
With: Jackie Coogan (Oliver), Lon Chaney (Fagin), James Marcus (Mr. Bumble), Aggie Herring (Mrs. Corney), Lewis Sargent (Noah Claypole), Joan Standing (Charlotte), Carl Stockdale (Monks), Edouard Trebaol (The Artful Dodger), Taylor Graves (Charley Bates), George Siegmann (Bill Sikes), Gladys Brockwell (Nancy), Lionel Belmore (Mr. Brownlow), Florence Hale (Mrs. Bedwin), Joseph Hazelton (Mr. Grimwig), Gertrude Claire (Mrs. Maylie), Esther Ralston (Rose Maylie), Eddie Boland (Toby Crackit)
by David Sterritt