Saturday, September 10, 2011

Please Sir...I Want Some More

Oliver Twist(1922)
Director: Frank Lloyd
Cast: Jackie Coogan, Lon Chaney, James A. Marcus

I've always been a devotee of classic literature and have always had a certain fondness for the works of Charles Dickens. Probably the most prolific english writer after William Shakespeare, Dickens' views on the world and working class strife and suffrage, are still potent today. One of his best loved, and most nearly autobiographical works, is Oliver Twist. Several versions have been made of this classic novel about the misadventures of an orphan through London's underbelly. There's been the prestigious and terrific 1948 version with Alec Guiness and the classic 1968 musical adaption("Food, Glorious Food!"), but one of the most neglected and wonderful versions has to be the first one made in 1922. Starring Jackie Coogan, fresh from his success in Chaplin's The Kid(1920), as the loveable title character, this adaption also has special distinction for lovers of the macabre and the fantastic because it also contains one of the genre's all time legendary figures. Adding to his gallery of grotesque and unsavory characters, Lon Chaney unveils another of his 1,000 faces as Fagin, the master-thief and extorter. Chaney gives one of his best screen performances in this classic and may be the best Fagin the screen has ever seen! Despite, Sir Alec Guiness' fine work in the David Lean verison from 1948, the overabundance of Jewish stereotypes has somewhat aged the part. Chaney softens that edge and even brings out shades of sympathy, in that inimitable way of his, combining the villainous with the piteous.

The story revolves around the poor orphan, Oliver Twist(Jackie Coogan)who has been placed in a workhouse, after his mother has passed away. The child, along with other children, toil away in a factory setting. They are mistreated and underfed and the kids decide to send a represenative to ask for more food. Of course, Oliver is picked and the famous scen of him asking for more gruel earns him dismissal and an apprenticeship with an undertaker! He is cruelly treated there as well, and makes an escape, roaming the english countryside. Starving and saddened, he happens upon a young rascal named the Artful Dodger(Edouard Trebaol) who promises him warm food and shelter. He is taken to the seedy hideout of Fagin(Lon Chaney) who is running an extortion racket, training the boys he employs as pickpockets! Young Oliver is naive to all of this and believes they are playing some sort of game when they try to teach the lad the mastering of the trade. One day, Oliver is asked to go out and join the other boys, but is mistaken for performing a crime and his chased down, until the kindly Mr. Brownlow(Lionel Belmore, the Burgermeister from Frankenstein(1931) comes to his aid and takes him under his wing. Oliver relates his story and Brownlow tests his honesty, by sending him to return some books. Unfortunately, the child is kidnapped by Nancy(Gladys Blockwell) who poses as his sister. Fagin and company plan to use Oliver in a crime, utlizing his small size to break into a home. Oliver is menaced by the brutal Bill Sikes(George Siegmann) who threatens to shoot Oliver if he does not comply. Nancy realizes that Oliver is in danger and trie sto intervene, but is shot by Bill. Meanwhile, it is discovered that Oliver was actually from a wealthy family and was kept away, in order to block his inheritance. Mr. Brownlow goes looking for the boy and the police raid and capture Fagin and the boys, Fagin going to prison. Bill attempts to kill Oliver and while trying to escape the police, falls to his death. Oliver has found his proper place in the world and has been afforded the wealth and position that he long deserved.

It's amazing what the filmmakers of this were able to accomplish with such a short running time. At only seventy minutes long, somehow the film manages to incorporate virtually all the characters and major events of the Dickens narrative, remaining remarkably faithful to the author's work. Frank Lloyd had a long and busy career in film, starting in the teens and continuing on making several classics, including the Oscar-winning masterpieces, Calvacade(1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty(1935). His work here is imaginative and well paced, capturing the look and feel of Victorian England, so very well. There's a particularly inventive sequence where young Oliver is rest in solitary confinement, after asking for more gruel, and imagines a stop-motion spoon and bowl dance around his head! The film contains several little moments like these, including the wonderfully scenic walk that Oliver takes towards London, his game with Fagin and his escape from the Undertakers, aided by the tail of a dog, as he climbs out from a chimney!

The cast perform pretty well, with a few notable standouts. Coogan is fine as Oliver and brings the same sort of innocence and pathos that made his character in The Kid, such a hit. Chaney steals the film as the craft Fagin, the make or break character of any adaption of this story. His makeup is, as usual, terrific and he seems to be having fun, teetering between subtle menace and light comedy. It's a wonderful performance and among his best. James A. Marcus is an appropiately blustery Mr. Bumble, the head of the workhouse that employs orphans and is one of the best interpretations of the character, especially in design, seeming to have stepped right out of the book! Trebaol is fine as the Artful Dodger, that mischievious character that serves as a poor role model for Oliver and Gladys Brockwell as Nancy is sympathetic as the doomed prostitute. The only real weak link is probably Siegmann's portrayal of Bill, which is rather one note. He's certainly a physically imposing character, but played a little flat, with none of the flamboyance of later portrayers, like Oliver Reed.

Oliver Twist is a fine silent film and one that was unseen for many decades. It was lost until the 1970s, until it's mysterious discovery in Yugoslavia(!) without intertitles. Happily, Jackie Coogan and Sol Lesser(the producer) were able to piece together the correct titles and that's the version we have today. It's a very good adaption of the story and should appeal to fans of the writer, looking for something resembling the landscapes so brilliantly brought to life in those timeless classics. Lon Chaney fans should certainly own this, as it is another example of why he was the silent era's finest dramatic actor. This one is a winner all the way.

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