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Oliver!

I hate 60ís musicals. I also hate Charles Dickens. So things arenít looking good for me enjoying 1968ís best picture winner, Oliver! based on the Dickens classic Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations, and David Copperfield. I list all of them, because they are all the same book.

Oliver! is in a British workhouse where 19th century orphans were sent to serve as slave labor. When he asks for more gruel at dinner, the workhouse kicks him out and sells him to an undertaker (no, not the Undertaker). Things go poorly at the new job, however, and Oliver! escapes and hitches a ride to London where he falls in with a group of pickpockets where they tell him that if he practices real hard, he can one day get as good as the legendary Bill Sikes. When he gets arrested for a robbery he actually didnít commit, a man pops up in court to testify that Oliver! is innocent and the victim feels bad for the boy, so he decides to take him home, where it is discovered that Oliver! is the son of the manís niece. With Oliver! off at a real home for once in his life, the gang of pickpockets schemes to get him back, afraid he will turn rat on them. They do manage to nab him when he goes out to run an errand, but Billís girlfriend Nancy feels guilty about her part in it and arranges with Oliver!ís family to return him. Before she can, Bill uses him in a robbery that doesnít go well, and is keeping an eye on him afterwards, so Nancy has to create a diversion and she gets him out. Bill follows her however, kills her, and tries to escape with Oliver!, but is shot in the process, and Oliver! ends up back with his family.

It is, of course, one great big coincidence that the guy Oliver! Was accused of robbing just happened to be the uncle of Oliver!ís mother, but hey, thatís just how Dickens rolls. Just when you think the guy is throwing down some egalitarian message and sticking it to the English class system of the 19th century, it turns out the protagonist is from a wealthy family after all.

Just as with all musicals, no one is supposed to care about the plot, because everyone is supposed to leave the theater singing all the tunes. Some of the songs are fairly good. I did like "Food, Glorious Food," "Consider Yourself," and "Oom Pah Pah." However unlike even West Side Story, none of the songs is particularly memorable.

The plot itself is dragged down by Dickensian flair for coincidence. When the guy who takes Oliver! in turns out to be a long lost relative, you just want to roll your eyes. That sort of thing happens a lot in the works of Dickens, and the fact that you know itís coming makes it far worse. The movie does eliminate some of the unnecessary elements Dickens threw in there (he was getting paid by the word, so he added in a lot of little plots twists), and I guess that does shorten things up a bit, but whatís left isnít much more impressive than what was left out.

Dickens was trying to prove a point about the horrible working conditions in 19th century England for poor orphans, a point which in my opinion is undermined when the orphan in question turns out to be from a well-off family. But is that point really well served by turning the story into a lighthearted musical? When Victor Hugoís wonderful novel Les Miserables was adapted for the stage there were a few lighthearted moments, but the overall tone matched the tone of the book. The tone of Oliver! is far different from the tone of Oliver Twist.

Other nominees that year included Anthony Harveyís wonderful examination of King Henry II trying to pick a successor Lion in Winter and the Zephirelli version of Romeo and Juliet. A look at the movies not nominated for the big prize that year shows that 1968 was a very good year at the theater. You had Kubrickís masterpiece 2001, La Battaglia di Algeri, which shows France dealing with Islamic terrorism, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple, and my own personal favorite, a film from Italian director Sergio Leone called Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo, or as itís called in the US, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. As much as I love this spaghetti western classic, 2001 is far superior in almost every way. It was well acted, despite having a no-name cast. The special effects were excellent. The cinematography is some of the greatest ever. Even the soundtrack, with its use of "Also Sprach Zarathustra" is better than the soundtrack of Oliver! When a musical doesnít even have the best soundtrack, that doesnít bode well. Academy voters may have been swayed by 2001ís rather trippy ending, which likely cannot be understood without the help of LSD, but Kubrick put together a great movie. About all Oliver! has going for it is an exclamation point in the title. Thatís not enough for me to agree with the Academy voters.


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