January 04, 2009
Oliver Twist (1922)
When cinema was growing and developing itself as a new storytelling art beyond documentaries or vaudeville acts, classic novels were brought as source for stories in the way of theater. As one of the most popular English novelists, Charles Dickens was one of the very firsts to have his works adapted to cinema. His second novel, "The Adventures of Oliver Twist", became the first of his writings to be adapted to the screen in 1897. Titled "Death of Nancy Sykes", it was nothing more than a filmed sketch of a theatrical representation of said scene, but it was only the beginning of "Oliver Twist"'s career on cinema. More than 10 versions of "Oliver Twist" were done in the silent era, many of them sadly lost, but fortunately, one of the most interesting ones still survives to our days: Frank Lloyd's 1922 adaptation titled simply, "Oliver Twist". What makes this movie interesting, is it's remarkable cast, which includes George Siegmann, child actor Jackie Coogan as Oliver, and the legendary "Man of a Thousand Faces", Lon Chaney, as Fagin.
Near his ninth birthday, a small orphan boy named Oliver Twist (Jackie Coogan) is brought to a workhouse under the terms of the Poor Law. There, the hungry Oliver survives with little food, until the boys decide to ask for more. Oliver is the one chosen to do this, but his request is met with an uproar, and it is decided that Oliver should leave the workhouse and become an apprentice for someone else. Mr. Sowerberry (Nelson McDowell), an undertaker, takes him and for a while everything seems to get better for Oliver, but due to the jealousy of Mr. Sowerberry's other apprentice, Noah (Lewis Sargent), Oliver finds himself once again alone and on the road to London. It is on his way to the big city where Oliver meets Jack Dawkins, better known as The Artful Dodger (Edouard Trebaol), a young pickpocket who takes Oliver to meet his "benefactor", an old Jewish man named Fagin (Lon Chaney). But Fagi is not a "good old gentleman", as he actually organizes a gang of juvenile delinquents. Under Fagin's wing, Oliver will discover life in London's streets.
Adapted to screen by Harry Weil and director Frank Lloyd himself, this version of "Oliver Twist" is generally faithful to Dickens' novel, including some subplots that posterior adaptations of the novel would ignore. Technically a condensed version of the book, the screenplay is completely focused on the character of Oliver Twist, which is certainly to be expected, but the problem is that unfortunately this leaves little room for development of the rest of the characters. This is probably because this "Oliver Twist" was conceived as Jackie Coogan vehicle with the idea of repeating the success of Chaplin's "The Kid" in mind. In many ways, Coogan's "Twist" is written as a retreat of his character in the Kid, designed to showcase Coogan's great talents and to make Oliver Twist a boy as cute and lovable as was the Kid. This results in a version of "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" that puts more emphasis on sweetness and tenderness, but a sweetness of the Hollywood kind, a tad artificial and far from the novel's natural sweetness found in the grim streets of London.
While the screenplay tends to downplay Victorian London's darkness and its impact in the story, director Frank Lloyd's makes sure of remember it for us thanks to the great work of cinematography done by Glen MacWilliams and Robert Martin. Lloyd creates a very atmospheric view of London, one that truly captures Dickens' urban world in all its grim splendor despite moving a bit from realism to a more stylish visual design with certain nods to German expressionism. Known for his great care for details, Lloyd makes great use of Dickens' symbolism through the film, and follows the novel's concern for the great problems faced by the lowest social classes (which in the 20s were still similar to an extent); also, taking advantage of a screenplay that focuses on Oliver's sweetness and nobility of heart, Frank Lloyd creates set pieces of great emotional power. Lloyd showcases his great hand at directing actors as he bring the best out of his cast, not only Coogan and Chaney, but particularly Gladys Brockwell, who plays Nancy.
Child actor Jackie Coogan is pretty much at the top of his game as the title role in "Oliver Twist", although the script basically demands him to do a somewhat diluted version of his character in "The Kid". Despite this, Coogan was really a prodigy of acting, and while he showcases many of the same tricks he employed in Chaplin's film, his talent manages to flourish at times and makes quite a convincing Oliver Twist. Nevertheless, the gem of the film is watching Lon Chaney as Fagin, where he delivers once again a magnificent performance as the leader of the juvenile criminal gang. It is sad that the script gives him little to do, because as Fagin, Lon Chaney is quite an impressive figure. Almost as impressive is George Siegmann's Bill Sikes, whom really complements Chaney as the story's ruthless and tough villain. As written above, Gladys Brockwell is the film's great surprise, as her performance as Nancy is truthfully moving and remarkably powerful. Her untimely death in 1929 is truly a tragedy.
Despite being a film done as a vehicle for Jackie Coogan, Frank Lloyd's version of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" is quite an interesting film for a number of reasons. Certainly, it's cast is the most obvious reason to watch it, but also Lloyd's use of cinematography and art direction is quite an achievement. But still, a couple of things stop this film from being "the definitive version" of Dickens' famous novel, the first of them being exactly one of the movie's main selling points: Jackie Coogan. It is not that Coogan is a bad actor (in my humble opinion, he's probably the best Oliver Twist ever after, tied with John Howard Davies of course), but his enormous fame played a major role in making the film essentially about Coogan, and not about Twist. What I mean is that the rest of the characters have not much to do, being overshadowed by the weight given to Coogan's role. Another problem is that the film tends to drag a bit, not only because of the scenes done to showcase Coogan, but also because of the writer's decision of including as much of the novel as they could.
Frank Lloyd's 1922 adaptation of "The Adventures of Oliver Twist" may not be "The definitive version" of the cherished novel (that may still be David Lean's 1948 version), but it's still one of the best done and most interesting of them. Granted, it really doesn't achieve the huge potential it has (one could only wonder how much could some tuning on the script may have helped it), but director Lloyd manages to create a film that's true to Dickens' spirit while at the same time being a product designed to sell Coogan's image one more time. It may not be the most impressive film of the silent era, but for the joy of watching Coogan and Chaney, this "Oliver Twist" is certainly a winner.