December 31, 2015
Oliver! (1968)
Grade: 52/100

Director: Carol Reed
Stars: Oliver Reed, Ron Moody, Shani Wallis

What it's about. Based on the Charles Dickens novel and the successful West End and Broadway musical. Set in 19th century England, mostly London. Preteenaged orphan Oliver (Mark Lester) lives on gruel in a prison posing as a workhouse. He's not alone, though, since dozens of other identically aged lads are in the same fix. They dream of eating the same sumptuous meals as the fat workhouse managers, but only Oliver has the temerity to ask for more gruel.

This simple request so shocks the child prison, er, workhouse staff that jailer Bumble (Harry Secombe) is obliged to sell the lad, as a child slave, to a stranger, a funeral director. Oliver gets in a scrap defending his mother, who died upon his birth, then runs away. Because it is a movie, he ends up in London unharmed, where he meets another parentless street child, the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild).

Dodger takes Oliver "home" to meet Fagin (Ron Moody), a fence and the head of a pickpocket ring whose members are boys such as Dodger. We also meet Bill Sikes (Oliver Reed), a menacing burglar, and Nancy (Shani Wallis), a barmaid and presumed prostitute in love with the unlovable Sikes.

During his first attempt as a pickpocket, Oliver is arrested. Because it is a movie, he is soon released, into the care of wealthy and kindly Mr. Brownlow (Joseph O'Conor), who believes, against all odds, that Oliver is the son of his late niece.

It looks like a happy ending for Oliver, but that story would never win the Best Picture Oscar. Fagin and Sikes are obsessed with the notion that Oliver will tattle on them, although one would think that many of their pickpocket waifs have been arrested before and thus the situation can hardly be novel. Sikes plots to kidnap Oliver, provoking the deaths of two leads and the collapse of Fagin's crime empire. Our innocent lead prevails, but what happens to Fagin's owl is never explained.

How others will see it. The film Oliver! was even more successful than the musical. It became the second-highest grossing movie that year from Columbia studios. It won six Oscars (including Best Picture and Best Director) and was nominated for six more.

Today at, the user vote total is 24K, fairly impressive for a movie made a half-century ago. The user rating is a respectable 7.5 but climbs to 7.9 among women over 45, who are undoubtedly pleased that Sikes dies while wide-eyed Oliver is adopted into wealth.

How I felt about it. Oliver! does have some things going for it. Its biggest asset is scale. The musical numbers feature dozens of dancers in attractive period costumes. The casting, with one obvious exception, is spot-on. We especially like Harry Secombe as Bumble, Jack Wild as the Artful Dodger, and gloomy, ominous Oliver Reed as antagonist Bill Sikes.

Reed's casting shows that nepotism isn't always a bad thing, since he was the nephew of director Carol Reed. Oliver Reed was already a star on the rise, though, playing the lead in a good British comedy from the previous year, I'll Never Forget What's'isname.

The major exception to the quality cast is Oliver himself. The director chose the most innocent and adorable face, a move certain to win over any mothers in the audience. But it makes for a bland and passive lead. In fact, Oliver is the still eye of the hurricane around which the cumbersome plot revolves, proof that the English class system works even if your mother dies at birth and you are raised in an orphanage. Blood must come through, and Oliver is rescued from a short life of crime while his mates in the orphanage and pickpocket ring remain unfortunate.

Since wealthy Mr. Brownlow believes the lad is his relation, his motives are understandable. But we wonder why Nancy is so determined to save blank-faced Oliver, even if it means disobeying her sith lord master Sikes, which could get her killed. After all, there are plenty of other boys under Fagin that nobody cares about, and are in equal need of saving.

The musical numbers are hummable, and certainly the musical was a commercial success both on stage and on screen. But something is wrong, because the movie is never that close to being good. It's true that the dialogue is unconvincing, full of threats and promises and sugar and spice. But if you just close your eyes and listen to the soundtrack, the only song you would want to hear again is Bumble's "Boy For Sale." For that matter, would an orphanage dispense with a boy simply because he asks for more gruel? That's Dickens for you.