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Moody's Fagin steals classic OLIVER!
on April 20, 2004
Until CHICAGO reenergized the movie musical genre, this musical version of Charles Dickens' immortal "Oliver Twist" was widely regarded as one of the last of the great movie musicals. Indeed, with its high-energy performances, infectious music, steady direction by Sir Carol Reed and glorious sets, this movie won the 1968 Best Picture Oscar over such formidable competition as THE LION IN WINTER, CHARLEY, and FUNNY GIRL.
Of course, most people are familiar with the classic story of young Oliver Twist, whose mother dies giving him birth and is forced to be raised under the cruel supervision of the English workhouse officials. When he dares beg for more than his meager ration of gruel, the youngster is apprenticed to an undertaker and his extremely nasty family. After escaping this hostile environment, he finds himself taken in by the roguish Fagin, the Artful Dodger(Fagin's best pupil), and the rest of his band of young pickpockets. In time, however, Oliver will find his home, but not before dealing with the likes of the brutal Bill Sikes with the help of Sike's sympathetic lover, Nancy, and the kindly Mr. Brownlow.
As musical films go, it is hard to fault the wonderful casting in this film. Mark Lester makes a perfectly, if maybe overly, innocent Oliver, while Jack Wild is a delight as the rascally Artful Dodger. Shanie Wallis is heart-rending as the tragic Nancy. Oliver Reed (Sir Carol's nephew) is truly scary as the menacing Bill Sikes. Harry Secombe displays a glorious tenor in the comic role of Mr. Bumble, the beadle of the workhouse. However, it is Ron Moody's fantastic performance of the rascally Fagin that steals this movie. It is not surprising, when you consider that he created the role when the musical was first produced in London. Of course, the character itself has gone quite a change from Dickens' original, going from the debatably nasty anti-Semitic portrait of the novel to that of a lovable, if sneaky, eccentric. Indeed, Moody's excellent portrayal would set the tone for almost all future performances of the role to date, including those of such actors as George C. Scott and Richard Dreyfus, among others.
Some Dickens fans may quibble about the liberties taken with the book, from the softening of Fagin to the elimination of Oliver's evil step-brother Monks from the storyline. And it isn't a perfect film by any means. (The child singer who dubbed Mark Lester's songs sounds like she's in an echo chamber of some sort, which makes Oliver's singing a jarring contrast to the rest of the cast.) But, as a musical film, it is a wonderful entertainment and superb introduction to the classic story. As a result, this is one musical that I would DEFINITELY recommend.