Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Frank Lloyd | Oliver Twist / David Lean | Oliver Twist / Carol Reed | Oliver! / Roman Polanski | Oliver Twist

four olivers
by Douglas Messerli

Walter Anthony, Frank Lloyd, and Harry Weil (screenplay and titles, based on the Dickens novel),  Frank Lloyd (director) Oliver Twist / 1922

David Lean and Stanley Haynes (screenplay, based on the Dickens novel), David Lean (director) Oliver Twist / 1948, USA 1951

Vernon Harris (screenplay, based on the musical by Lionel Bart, based on the Dickens novel) , Carol Reed (director) Oliver! / 1968

Ronald Harwood (screenplay), Roman Polanski (director) Oliver Twist / 2005

The four major film productions of Dickens' great childhood fantasia on poverty and fate, Oliver Twist, are all, on the surface, more or less true to the great novelist's work. Strangely enough, however, the shortest of them, Frank Lloyd's 1922 silent version, just 74 minutes in length, is the closest to the rambunctious original. With great synthesis and the use of word boards, Lloyd manages to keep the Monks part of the story—the half-brother of Oliver out to swindle the hero of his inheritance—as well as the Rose Maylie sequences, wherein just as he was by Mr. Brownlow, Oliver is given warm love and attention. Lloyd even manages to bring the country bumpkin Noah Claypole to London and back into Oliver's fate.

      Jackie Coogan's Oliver is the smallest and most frail of all of these heroes, and in many senses he is, in that fragility, the most charming—except for a kind knock-em-out swagger coupled by his wearing a hat similar to that in Chaplin's The Kid of the year before. Perhaps Lloyd's greatest scenes are those early in the film, in his depiction of workhouse life: the endless ironing of the women, the nearly meaningless unraveling of oakum by the young boys. Lon Chaney's Fagin is effective and played without the bravura stereotype of the "Jew" later actors brought to it. His Fagin is more of an eccentric crook than a devious outsider, and the character, accordingly, while less outsized, is also more sympathetic.

     For all that, there is something a bit sentimentalized about the Lloyd version that, even outdoing the passively sweet John Howard Davies of David Lean's 1948 version, turns Oliver Twist more into a children's tale than the often gritty and horrifying social-political story that was Dickens' version. Lean's work begins with the melodramatic journey of Oliver's mother to the parish workhouse to give birth, presented against the backdrop of a stormy night that seems to immediately cast the film into an almost operatic mode that any moment might drown the rest of the tale. When Oliver finally escapes his apprenticeship with the undertaker Sowerberry, however, things pick up, with The Artful Dodger (a young Anthony Newley) sweeping up Oliver on the edge of the city before bringing him into the evil lair of Alec Guinness' Fagin.

     Guinness is a better actor than Chaney, and is almost always fascinating to watch. But his Fagin is most definitely "the Jew" (as Dickens repeated in the original again and again)—so much so that the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith and the New York Board of Rabbis objected, causing a postponement of the American premiere for three long years. The film was banned—for opposite reasons—in both Israel (for its anti-Semitism) and Egypt (for its presentation of Fagin as a sympathetic being).

      Lean also eviscerated a great many of Dickens' characters and scenes. Nancy's relationship with the young Oliver has almost disappeared, and Oliver's lack of  relationship to her makes him even more of a passive being as he is shuttled about from poverty to luxury, and back to poverty again. Monks only briefly appears and seems to have no integral connection to Oliver. The Maylies are taken out of the story, while Oliver's mother becomes Brownlow's daughter rather than the lover of Oliver's father, Brownlow's former friend, bringing in a coincidence that seems even more outrageous than those the author relishes. Nancy is murdered not after a meeting with Brownlow at London Bridge but earlier in her house.

     In short, Lean thins out his story, perhaps bringing some clearer logic to the whole, but also stealing much of the discombobulated energy that one associates with Dickens' fictional worlds. What he has gained in clarity Lean loses in the epic qualities of the work that are so clearly revealed in Polanski's 2005 version.

     The dark palette of Polanski's Oliver Twist perfectly matches Dickens', and the color the director infuses into the film is as effective as the coloration of the original author's language. Once we have quickly slipped over Oliver's demand for "more" and his unfortunate time with the Sowerberrys, we enter a world that becomes epic in its dimensions as Polanski focuses, more than any of the previous directors, on the vast proportions of the young Oliver's (played in this case by Barney Clark) voyage to London, a trip of seven days! The tone of the work is set not only by the camera's loving embrace of the British landscape but by Rachel Portman's sweeping musical score. By the time Oliver reaches London, in fact, we feel almost as out of breath as does the young urchin, and The Artful Dodger's (Harry Eden's) salvation of the boy comes just in time.

     Ben Kingsley certainly does not ignore the Jewishness of his Fagin, but he also does not play it to the hilt as did Guinness in Lean's version and Ron Moody in the musical Oliver!. He is closer, in his ugliness and demeanor, to Chaney's performance, without losing the delicious tawdriness and leering sexual insinuations of his relationship with his "boys." Barney Clark's Oliver, moreover, is far more feisty and determined than almost any of the other Olivers, bringing, for the first time, a different kind of energy into the film.

     Polanski also takes liberties with Dickens' original, confounding the robbery in which Oliver is forced to join by Bill Sykes with the very house in which Mr. Brownlow so nicely kept him previously. Again several characters such as the Maylies and Monk are wiped out. On the other hand, Polanski does bring in the early incidents when Oliver might have been chosen as a chimney-sweep and the final scenes where he visits Fagin in prison, which most of these films have abolished. It matters, I would argue, that Fagin, faced with the British justice system, goes mad. In feeling and sweep, it appears that Polanski has been far more faithful to Dickens than even Lloyd's early silent version.

    Obviously, I have said nothing yet about Carol Reed's 1968 version based on the musical by Lionel Bart. Perhaps it is simply unfair to compare that perfectly joyful and often charming tale  to the grimmer realities of the real story. The musical is absolutely delightful. Even though it retains Nancy's murder, Sykes' death by hanging, and Fagin's abuse of young boys, Reed's work is ultimately so overblown with a singing, dancing street life that there seems little reason to scurry off the most passive of Olivers (Mark Lester) to a wealthy London house. Fagin and his dark hole seems so much more full of fun that one has difficulty knowing what all the fuss is about. As Nancy (Shani Wallis) ironically sings, "It's a fine life." But it ain't Dickens either. For there are few dark "twists" in this Oliver's life.

Los Angeles, December 31, 2012
Reprinted from Nth Position (February 2012).

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