January 06, 2009
Oliver Twist (1933)
As one of the most popular English authors of all time, Charles Dickens has had his work adapted multiple times to the big screen, almost since the very beginning of cinema. "The Adventures of Oliver Twist", one of his most famous novels, was brought to the big screen more than 10 times during the silent era, the most famous of them being the one directed by Frank Lloyd with Lon Chaney as Fagin and Jackie Coogan in the title role. The arrival of sound to cinema in 1927 changed the industry in many ways, as while the technology was met with disbelief by artists, audiences loved it, and soon it was discovered that sound certainly had new storytelling possibilities. As expected, the arrival of sound brought new versions of literature classics, which was a popular choices as the new technological advances made possible to actually listen to famous dialogs. So, in 1933 "Oliver Twist" returned to the big screen in a "talkie" version of the novel directed by William J. Cowen for the independent studio Monogram Pictures. Unfortunately, the results of this venture left a lot to be desired.
Set in the early 1800s, the story begins with the birth of a child at a workhouse and the subsequent death of his mother. Since there is no information about the mother, the orphan is named Oliver Twist (Dickie Moore) and taken by the workhouse under the Poor Law. When Oliver is nine years old, he's taken to work at the workhouse with other children, where he continues his life of constant hunger. One day, Oliver dares to ask for more food, causing an uproar at the workhouse that threatens his safety there, so, decided to find better fortune, Oliver runs away and heads to London. On his way to the big city, the small orphan finds a curious companion in Jack Dawkins, a juvenile pickpocket better known as The Artful Dodger (Sonny Ray). The Dodger takes Oliver to his "employer", an old Jewish man named Fagin (Irving Pichel) who organizes a gang of young criminals whose specialty is to steal handkerchiefs, wallets and other goods in the streets of London. Taken by Fagin as a new member, Oliver will discover life on London streets, as well as the secrets of his past.
The screenplay, written by Elizabeth Meehan (who has 1928's "Laugh, Clown, Laugh", amongst her credits), this version of Charles Dickens' popular novel is a very direct and straightforward adaptation, in the sense that while some subplots and characters are either omitted or drastically reduced (like Oliver's days with Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker), the core of the tale remains exactly the same. While there are versions that focus completely on the character of Oliver and his innocence, taking Bill Sikes as the story's main villain (due to him being a far more imposing figure than Fagin); Meehan opts for making her film revolve around Oliver relationship with Fagin and his gang, to the point that it's one of the few films where Fagin's destiny is seen completely. In this aspect, Elizabeth Meehan makes a nice adaptation as she attempts to give more character development to the story's villains, although her work with the dialogs isn't really good (probably due to lack of experience in "talkies"), and at times, it seriously hurts the film.
However, it is William J. Cowen's work as a director what probably hurts the film more in the end. Being the husband of popular scriptwriter Lenore J. Coffee, Cowen had a brief career in cinema in the late 20s and early 30s, making only five movies (and one short film), including 1932's jungle horror, "Kongo". Unfortunately, his version of "Oliver Twist" doesn't have a lot going for it, as while Meehan's screenplay is not really bad, Cowen's film-making seems to be completely void of any creativity as the director limits himself to just shot what the screenplay says and nothing more, often with awkward, and extremely stagy results. Granted, budget and time constrains were definitely a problem (wouldn't surprise me that most of the budget had been used in getting Moore and Pichel), but the rather rushed and simplistic way Cowen makes the movie a mediocre result. Still, while Cowen may not give the best use to J. Roy Hunt's appropriately gritty cinematography, to his credit he manages to recreate convincingly Dickens' world of social injustice.
Still, as if Cowen's mediocre style of directing wasn't enough to damage the first sound version of "Oliver Twist", the performances of the cast are the final nail in the film's coffin. But, before going over what's really bad about the cast, I must first mention the only memorable thing about Cowen's "Oliver Twist", which stands out like a desert rose: Irving Pichel's performance as Fagin. In the middle of a sea of mediocrity, Pichel delivers a terrific performance as the Jewish old man who has made an art out of training juvenile criminals. While not a Lon Chaney or an Alec Guiness, Pichel does make a great impression as the legendary character, and is probably the only one with any idea about acting in the film. As the old man Fagin, he is charming, and at the same time menacing, capturing Dickens' famous character without making it a caricature. Quite a talented man, Pichel worked in "Oliver Twist" only a year after debuting as a director with the remarkable mix of horror and adventure, "The Most Dangerous Game" (codirected with Ernest B. Schoedsack).
However, the rest of the cast is far from being half as good as Pichel. Well, to be fair child star Dickie Moore is actually not that bad, and while definitely chosen by his angelic, innocent look, at times he does manage to give a convincing portrait of Oliver Twist. A bit stiff and wooden in his performance, Moore may not be the best Oliver Twist, but at least he gets the job done. Something that cannot be said of Sonny Ray, who is probably, the worst Dodger of the silver screen. Not only Ray was too old to play The Artful Dodger, he seems to lack any ability to convincingly deliver his lines, and is often overacted to the point of getting tiresome. Easily, the worst thing about the film. William 'Stage' Boyd (not to be confused with the star of "Hop-Along Cassidy") isn't anything special as Bill Sikes, and plays him as any other stereotypical brute. Known for his constant drug and alcohol problems, it's probable that 'Stage' Boyd wasn't at his best condition. Popular actress Doris Lloyd manages to make an acceptable job as Nancy, despite also being considerably old for the role.
For being the very first sound version of "Oliver Twist", William J. Cowen's film is quite disappointing, specially as it throws away a nice script by Elizabeth Meehan and Irving Pichel's great performance. Mediocre at best, and awful at worst, 1933's version of Charles Dickens' novel is not the most memorable film from the 30s (although it did start a brief fad of making films about Dickens' novels), and the world would have to wait until 1948 to watch a proper sound version of the novel in the British movie directed by David Lean. In the end, Cowen's film has very few interesting things, and since it's neither very good nor very bad, unfortunately, it's just one more of the forgettable mediocre titles of the first decade of sound.