Thursday, July 29, 2010

The 100 Best Movies: #44

44. Oliver! (1968)

At the time that Charles Dickens was writing his novels and stories, the British Music Hall and operettas by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan were "the norm" when it came to musical stage productions. This standard stayed around even into the 20th Century right up until the Great Depression and World War II. When American musicals began to become standard (i.e. the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows), British musical producers began searching high and low for shows that could be just as popular as that of their U.S. counterparts. Lionel Bart, who was British pop songwriter in the 1950's, had the idea for a musical based on one of Charles Dickens' most beloved novels, Oliver Twist. British media had felt very protective of one of their most beloved novelists and, at the time, the best adaptation of the novel was David Lean's 1948 film version (starring Alec Guinness). But Bart was determined to get a stage adaptation made.

Bart brought the idea to American producer David Merrick and his British producing partner Donald Alberry. The two had hits on both sides of the Atlantic with shows like Irma La Douce and Stop the World-I Want to Get Off!. Bart convinced them that he could write the songs and the libretto of the show (making him one of the few triple-threat writers on Broadway). The show, titled Oliver!, opened in London in 1960 starring Ron Moody as Fagin, Georgia Brown as Nancy and Davey Jones (later of The Monkees) as The Artful Dodger. The show was a huge critical and box-office success. It became one of the longest-running shows in London's West End (that is until Andrew Lloyd Webber's shows came along). Brown and Jones repeated their London performances in the Broadway production alongside Clive Revill (in the role of Fagin) in 1963 where the show was also a hit. The success in London, on Broadway and in its UK and U.S. tours warranted Hollywood studios to come calling.

Merrick and Alberry sold the film rights to Columbia Pictures because they ensured that the movie would be made by British filmmakers in England. Producer John Woolf enlisted the great film legend Sir Carol Reed to direct the movie. Reed brought his usual dark touch to the sprightly musical especially with casting his nephew, Oliver Reed, as the villainous Bill Sikes. Ron Moody was asked to repeat his West End stage triumph as Fagin and he is an absolute gem in the role. He has the devilish quality necessary for Fagin but just enough musical talent to make him charming and endearing. British pop singer Shani Wallis and child actor Jack Wild were cast as Nancy and The Artful Dodger, respectively. Both of them get some of the best (and most memorable) numbers in the musical and they make the most of it. For the title role, they cast a newcomer named Mark Lester, whose sweet-faced expressions are the heart of the character (I say this now, even though when I was a kid those expressions really bugged me!). The film was a great success (like its stage predecessor) and went on to win several Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. It is a delightful musical that gets better (for varying reasons) with each viewing.

Next Post: #43

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