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Experience the high-spirited adventures of Oliver Twist in this Oscar(r)-winning musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic tale! Young Oliver (Mark Lester) is an orphan who escapes the cheerless life of the workhouse and takes to the streets of 19th-Century London. He's immediately taken in by a band of street urchins, headed by the lovable villain, Fagin (Ron Moody), his fiendish henchman, Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), and his loyal apprentice, The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Through his education in the fine points of pick-pocketing, Oliver makes away with an unexpected treasure... a home and a family of his own.
For more about Oliver! and the Oliver! Blu-ray release, see Oliver! Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on November 14, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Oliver Reed, Hugh Griffith, Ron Moody, Jack Wild, Shani Wallis, Harry Secombe
Director: Carol Reed
» See full cast & crew
Oliver! Blu-ray Review
Who will buy?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, November 14, 2013
There's an old adage that various traits tend to skip a generation, and I'm here to say that evidently love of musicals must be among them. A few years ago Oliver! popped up on some cable movie channel, and I sat down with my then fairly young sons to watch what had always been one of my fonder childhood film memories. Within about 30 seconds (I don't think we even made it all the way through "Food, Glorious Food"), both of my sons ran from the room without so much as a "see ya", and they have not shied away from reminding me ever since of this supposed parental gaffe (as in, "How could you even think we'd want to watch something that stupid?"). Musicals are, after all, either an acquired taste or perhaps more accurately a taste one must be born with—and I make no bones about the fact that I have a soft spot in my heart for a lot of the iconic musicals from the so-called Golden Eras of both Broadway and Hollywood. Oliver! was an unusual success story in several ways. Its adapter, one Lionel Bart, had had a number of significant but not blockbuster successes in the West End with shows like Lock Up Your Daughters and Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, but at the point when Oliver! took London by storm in 1960, Bart had probably raked in more actual cash with his pop songwriting, which had included hits for the likes of Cliff Richard, then arguably the biggest music star in Britain. Everything changed with Oliver!, though. Bart pulled off a rather rare artistic hat trick by writing the book, music and lyrics for the show, and several songs from his score became overnight standards ("As Long As He Needs Me", "Consider Yourself" and "Where Is Love?" among them). Broadway impresario David Merrick optioned the rights for an American version and then did something rather incredible—instead of premiering the show on The Great White Way, he instead instigated a cross country American tour before the Broadway debut which only raised the ticket buying feeding frenzy in New York City to unimaginable heights. By the time the show did open on Broadway, it was already one of the biggest hits of the 1962-63 season (the show played well into 1964). Trivia buffs probably already know that the cast of Oliver! was one of those "and the rest" acts that appeared on the iconic 1964 Ed Sullivan Show which introduced The Beatles to a screaming female audience. (Included in the cast was the young actor playing The Artful Dodger, one Davy Jones, who no doubt took mental notes about how to handle the onslaught of pop music superstardom for his impending role in The Monkees.)
The late sixties were not a good time for film musicals. After the gargantuan successes of both My Fair Lady and (especially) The Sound of Music, it seemed that audiences couldn't get enough of singing and dancing spectaculars. But within just a few short years, the handwriting was on the wall with regard to this once seemingly indestructible genre. 1966 had relatively few big screen musicals even come out (and that's even including "semi-musicals" like the screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), while 1967 saw the behemoth Camelot either crash and burn or "fail to live up to expectations", depending on who was doing the PR spinning. A couple of other 1967 musicals, like the Leslie Bricusse Dr. Dolittle, lived up to that title and did very little at the box office. So there were probably at least a few nerves around the Columbia lot when the film version of Oliver! opened in late 1968 (some months after Star! stunned Fox by going over like a lead balloon). They needn't have worried—the film received rapturous reviews and did extremely brisk business, becoming one of that year's biggest hits, and ultimately going on to win the 1968 Academy Award for Best Picture.
Like many of Charles Dickens' most famous stories, Oliver!'s source novel Oliver Twist deals with class differences and the subjugation of the poor. Little Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) is a foundling at an orphanage, a kid with no family, no prospects and no love. The orphanage's director Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe) is outraged when Oliver asks for more gruel one day, and he sets out to sell (yes, sell) the boy to the highest bidder. That soon places Oliver in the frightening hands of an undertaker, where Oliver is forced to follow funeral corteges to gin up sympathy for the bereaved. A conflict with an older boy at the funeral home ultimately leads to Oliver's escape, where he finally makes his way to the grimy streets of 19th century London.
That sets up the bulk of the film, where Oliver becomes part of a motley crew of young pickpockets which includes The Artful Dodger (Jack Wild, Oscar nominated) and which is "mentored" by Fagin (Ron Moody, Oscar nominated in the role he created both on the West End and Broadway). Fagin is an aging rascal, but he has a good heart, unlike his chief henchman, the threatening Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed). Bill is an abusive lout, one whose violence spills over to both the kids and his spunky but intimidated girlfriend, Nancy (Shani Wallis). Oliver is once again powerless—but he's perhaps incrementally more free than he was in the poorhouse orphanage or at the undertaker's.
In typical Dickens fashion, a Deus ex Machina appears out of the clouds and offers Oliver a way out of his misery, but several colliding subplots, including Bill's efforts to exact a ransom for the lad and Fagin's desire to "retire" with his lifetime of accumulated loot, catapult into a chaotic conclusion that sees tragedy visit one major character while another gets some much deserved comeuppance (or in this instance comedownance).
Oliver! is a big, brash entertainment that is unusual in that it eschews the typical musical trappings of glitzy, glamorous folks who are glittering sophisticates who obviously are meant to burst into song at the drop of a veritable hat. One of the great triumphs of this musical, and of this film version, is its unwavering grittiness. Yes, the film is glossy, as virtually all sixties musicals were, but the setting and the characters are rather unusual for this genre. Oliver! benefits from absolutely assured (and completely unobtrusive) direction by Sir Carol Reed (another Oscar winner for the film), and it also features exuberant choreography by Onna White, who herself received a special Oscar for her work on the film.
Oliver! Blu-ray, Video Quality
Oliver! sings and dances its way onto Blu-ray with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. While I wasn't quite as impressed with the look of this presentation as I was with the other Sony-Columbia title debuting simultaneously with this one, The Way We Were, this is overall a fantastic looking release that retains a naturally filmic (if at times heavily grainy) appearance, with generally very accurate and nicely saturated colors. (It may just be the literal "rose colored" glasses of my memory, but I always though Shani Wallis' hair was just a bit more auburn-orange than it appears here.) Fine detail is exceptional, revealing the tufted weave in several costumes, and what almost appears like individual flecks of soot on brick walls. Contrast is strong, allowing the frequently dusky alleyway sequences to bristle with excellent shadow detail.
Oliver! Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Anyone who (as I did) grew up with the Original Soundtrack recording of Oliver! will probably concur that the recording, both in its original LP version and later on its CD reissue, sounded horribly compressed and muffled, and unfortunately even previous home video versions of the film suffered from at least partially the same anomaly, despite the fact that at least some elements of the so-called Original Soundtrack recording were actually rerecordings done expressly for the album. This Blu-ray's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix alleviates most, but not quite all, of that issue (I've always been a bit curious as to why the sound in Oliver! never seemed to have quite the same lustrous dynamic range and power that many other musicals of its era seemed to). The 5.1 track beautifully surrounds the listener in the gorgeous orchestrations by Johnny Green, and many of the huge set pieces are awash in excellent immersion. Dialogue is very cleanly presented and the entire mix is very well prioritized.
Oliver! Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Oliver! Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Oliver! is an ebullient, but at times surprisingly melancholy, musical that is buoyed by the lovely songs of Lionel Bart and superb performances by its principal cast. The film nicely opens up the stage musical (though as a former Bill Sikes myself, did they have to delete Bill's big song "My Name"?) and the production design is among the most evocative of any musical film, brilliantly bringing Dickens' gritty, grimy London fully to life. My own sons are getting old enough now that we may be seeing grandchildren within a decade or so, so if that old "skipping a generation" adage holds true, maybe I can finally settle down with one of my future grandkids to enjoy Oliver! all over again. This Blu-ray offers great looking video and very good sounding audio, and comes with some good (and some patently silly) supplements. Highly recommended.
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