OLIVER! (1968)

Oliver!_(1968_movie_poster)England in the early Victorian Era! Crushing urban poverty! Child abuse! Crime! Singing! Dancing! Oliver! A musical about 1830s England, or as Ted Cruz calls it, “Utopia”.

I like musicals. Well, not every one, but there definitely is something about the form that intrigues me. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a catchy song. But more than that, there’s just something about the uniquely stylized way of telling the story. How curious, when one stops to think, is a situation where individuals and groups burst into song to express their circumstances and conflicts, how divorced from the real world. Musical theater is one thing- when I watch someone on stage acting out a story, it’s expected that real life is on hold and my imagination will have to carry some of the weight. But then there is the movie musical. This is a funny thing. When so much of classical cinema has been about obscuring the artifice of film, here is a movie that takes a paradoxical approach. One on hand, it creates a fictional world that resembles the real world as much as possible. Then it has the characters take the utterly bizarre action of spontaneously singing, with each other and to each other. And so it becomes a case study of how convention defines perception. Movie musicals are incredibly weird when you stop to think about it- which no one does because stories have been put to film this way for as long as there has been sound, and for long before that on the stage.

One of the really weird things about a lot of musicals is you sometimes know the songs without having the slightest idea HOW you know the songs. The second we turned this film on, I realized that was the case for me. I’d not seen it before – I hadn’t even read the book – and yet I knew these tunes, somehow. And now, a few days after seeing the film, I find myself singing them still. I’m not sure if that is a good thing – I know if we had watched CATS, Mouse probably would not think it was a good thing (I would though – I love that Rum Tum Tugger).

The biggest takeaway I had from this film was how much I preferred the Artful Dodger, our pickpocketing youngster cameo, to our purported hero Oliver. Oliver seemed unabashedly pitiful throughout the story, mostly begging and saying please with arms extended, once getting into a poorly conceived fistfight, and in general just looking like a lost puppy. The Artful Dodger, on the other hand, had fantastic dapper clothes in miniature, was confident and creative, had spunk, was clearly loyal to those he loved, and in general was just more interesting to watch. It made me wish this story had a follow up strictly focused on him. He serves in the film as Oliver’s introduction to life on the streets of London as an urchin – but again, he simply stole the show.

I don’t know about the novel, but yes, the Artful Dodger is definitely the standout character of the movie, the Mercutio of this story, so to speak. Not that he gets much competition from the title character. This raises the question in my mind of why Oliver, a character so passive he makes Cossette look like Don Corleone, gets an exclamation point after his name in the title? In fact there’s one song in which the company sings “Oliver! Oliver!”, as if they can’t get over the novelty of his name for some reason. It doesn’t matter how many times you chant the name of the character; you can’t make me care about him more than I would through effective characterization in the narrative.

Having had at least a casual familiarity with the story and characters, I’ve wondered about the character Fagin. Given his appearance and behavior, is he supposed to be Jewish? Indeed, Wikipedia tells me, the novel at times refers to him as “the Jew”. I’m not going to bother examining the racial politics of the 1830s. The musical, on the other hand, comes from the 1960s. When Fagin sings his song about what a greedy creep he is, couldn’t they have toned down the exaggerated accent and fake klezmer music? I’m not calling this the most racist movie I’ve ever seen. But this is just two decades after the Third Reich, which made a point of producing movies playing on stereotypes of Jews as avaricious exploiters of others. Couldn’t the producers have remained true to the source material while still going with a lighter touch here?

We typically compare Best Picture winners to the films it beat for the Oscar. As Oliver! is a musical, we must compare it to the greatest of movie musicals: Matt Besser’s classic of musical comedy, Freak Dance. Like Freak Dance, Oliver! uses song to tell a story about the inherent conflict of polarized wealth in the city, but unfortunately has too many hokey or stuffy moments to meet Freak Dance’s gold standard.

It is true – Freak Dance is the cream of the crop. And I’m glad Mouse alerted me to that very disturbing racial stereotype found within our film. Truth be told, the only Dickens I ever read in high school (aka EVER) was A Tale of Two Cities. Madame DeFarge, still knitting, and knitting – actually, as an extra credit project I remember some classmates and I made a video in which one of us pretended to be the Energizer Bunny in a scene with said Madame while another chanted, “She keeps knitting, and knitting, and knitting…” All that is to say that Dickens does have one remarkable strength – he writes a few truly memorable characters. They just don’t happen to be the lead. Oliver! carries this on.

I want to take a moment to point out the fantastic dance scenes in the film. I kept thinking to myself, wow – I wonder how many people would pile on and beat someone up if they were responsible for messing up this take to the point where it was unusable. There are tons and tons of dancers in this film, with interconnected routines, moves, and cues. It was the most engaging and impressive part of the movie for me. I would imagine these depictions could even be more grandiose in cinema than on the live stage with the advantage of multiple cameras and shot angles. Oliver! is worth it for the dance numbers alone.

The key to a great musical is a proper mix of certain constituent elements. All musicals are a little corny, the trick is to dose the corniness in with just the right amount of drama (a good story helps), and a certain self-awareness concerning the absurdity of the whole affair. The proportions are hard to get right. I feel like there are moments when Oliver! hits that sweet spot, like the aforementioned large scale ensemble numbers, but too much of it feels old and stodgy to be consistently great. Also, I think this year’s Best Picture is interesting in the context of the previous and following years’ winners (In The Heat of the Night and Midnight Cowboy, respectively). All three are socially aware, sympathizing in their own ways with those left out or behind in society.  The other two seem so much more forward looking than Oliver!, making those years look, in retrospect, like a real transitional period in film- which it was.

Also nominated in 1968:
Funny Girl,
The Lion In Winter,
Rachel, Rachel,
Romeo and Juliet

Next film: ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)

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