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A Carol's Dickens Twist

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OLIVER! (1968) Blu-Ray

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Right off the bat I gotta say that the works of Charles Dickens have always provided me with an unending source of amusement. And for good reason. His vivid depictions of poverty, squalor, illegitimacy, greed, corruption, spousal and child abuse, drunkenness and sadism have made him the world's most beloved teller of family stories for over 150 years. The logical next step? Come on, it's obvious. Turn these heart-wrenching narratives of pain into a musical! In fact, several musicals! The question is: WTF took them so long?

Thus, in 1968, Columbia Pictures released an epic singin' and dancin' “freely adapted” (by Vernon Harris) edition of the author's 1837 publication Oliver Twist. Based on the earlier smash Broadway musical, OLIVER! became one of the highest-grossing movies of the 1960s, as well as one of the most critically-acclaimed. I have to admit that it's quite a great ride, and a perfect candidate for Blu-Ray, as evidenced by the stunning new limited-edition platter from Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Home Entertainment.

With a barrage of song standards, including “Who Will Buy?,” “Food Glorious Food,” “I’d Do Anything,” “Consider Yourself,” and others by Lionel Bart (arranged and supervised by John Green) and some splendid kicking choreographed by Onna White, OLIVER! is exemplifies of The Sixties’ most expensive type of movie. Funnily enough, it's often cited as the exception to the rule – being a successful musical from an era that ostensibly considered the genre dead. Don't believe it! This is a Hollywood Ponzi scheme; in the 1960s, the movie musical wasn't dead – it simply semi-retired to a condo in the Cayman Islands. True, there were fewer musicals made, but look at the soundtrack record: The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Thoroughly Modern Millie. Julie Andrews aside, there was also West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and, to a lesser extent, Camelot. Furthermore, it was long-touted that there never was an Elvis picture that lost money, regardless of the increasing amount of annoying ethnic urchins he sang to. And of course there were the Richard Lester Beatles pics – still hovering on many Blockbuster Movie lists (and LP album sales).

OLIVER! was produced by John Woolf, the guy later responsible for such screen merriment as Day of the Jackal. To direct this celebration of misery, he chose none other than Carol Reed, the auteur most renowned for the post-war noir classic The Third Man. Don't get me wrong – it all worked out for the best. Everybody (audience included) made out like a bandit, which brings us to the pic's most colorful character, that unscrupulous, lovable thievin' degenerate Fagin.

For those unfamiliar with the story of Oliver Twist, let me briefly explain. Oliver Twist is an abused runaway from a decrepit workhouse; finding his way to the East End of London, he becomes involved with the wrong element – a den of boy crooks, masterminded by the aforementioned wizened Fagin – a notorious (here we go) Jew. Inducted into the gang, they are...well, let's just say it all turns out for the surprising best. Hard to fathom that this rather depressing pastiche evolves into a joyous toe-tapping tribute to the grindingly poor. But it does! After watching OLIVER!, you wonder why anyone wouldn't want to live in filth? Or deliriously ponder on how fun it is to have scant responsibilities and even scantier meals! It's enough to bring tears to the House GOP's eyes. I can almost see them making it required viewing for the near-homeless – instructing them to watch it on their Blu-Ray players and big screens that they bought with their Food Stamps.

But back to Carol Reed. Reed's personal life was in and of itself a Dickensian tale – that is if it had been co-written and produced by Noel Coward. Reed was one of six illegitimate children fathered by the legendary founder of the Royal School Dramatic Arts, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Deeming it a minor infraction to his regular married life, Tree branched out – keeping his babe, Beatrice Mae Pinney, and their brood in a happy, thriving second household. Since there’s no business like show business, Carol couldn’t wait to follow his pater’s prolific footsteps and soon was acting, co-writing and producing mystery thrillers with Edgar Wallace. When Wallace became head of the British Lion Film Corporation, Reed went along – eventually rising to director. Since his most renowned movies embraced the suspense and heavy drama arena (Night Train to Munich, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol, The Man Between) one must ask, “What the hell were they thinking?” – handing him the reins to OLIVER!, the UK’s biggest musical ever made.

But ha-ha-ha on you! Reed copped a Best Director Oscar for his excellent handling of OLVIER! (one of six wins, including Best Picture, out of eleven nominations). With mock shock, he laughingly asked the press why someone didn't tell him that he was making the wrong kind of movies for the past thirty years. In hindsight, the choice of Reed wasn’t as strange as it sounds. Robert Wise, who helmed both West Side Story and Sound of Music, had previously given us such melodic gossamer fantasies as The Body Snatcher, Somebody Up There Likes Me and I Want to Live!

Dickens himself is a cinematic godsend – and that's without that always-welcome added production carrot that his writings reside in the public domain. Seriously, read any passage from Dickens, and it's almost like skimming through a script; he might genuinely be the originator of montage, such are his celluloid-friendly descriptions (many award-winning Dickens adapters slyly acknowledge that conversion from novel to screen was a cinch). Dickens' plots themselves are enough to make Hollywood plotz, and suggest that if the author hadn't existed before the advent of the mass-entertainment popcorn appendage, they'd have invented him.

Like Shakespeare and Shylock, Dickens with his creation of Fagin have long given way to rumors that he was a rabid anti-Semite; oh, yeah – well that and the fact that he hated Jews with a Henry Ford vengeance. The actors who impersonated his most controversial character, too, carried this taint. Alec Guinness, who shot to stardom with his Fagin portrayal in David Lean's 1948 straightforward adaptation, didn't help the situation by pooh-poohing this accusation with the accompanying “Why, my own wife is a Jewess.”

Ron Moody, who essays musical Fagin in OLIVER!, won a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his tuneful unsavory revelry; his curmudgeonly antics are so downright charming that no matter how horrible the extent of his villainy, you still kinda love the bastard. Oh, if only Bernie Madoff could sing! As beautifully laid out in the Faginomics number “Gotta Pick a Pocket or Two,” the sonant SOB reveals his own can't-miss trickle-down plan, emphatically placing his trust in the rich (knowing that their wealth will soon “magically” reach his gnarly little hands). Indeed Fagin's private surplus vault – a gleaming fortress of gold, silver and pewter opulence – merely underlines the affluent affliction for indulgence and could easily be recycled (or fenced, to use the lingo of the trade) as the DBA storefront Yarmulke-Schlemmer.

Shani Wallis, who plays the victimized you-know-what-with-the-heart-of-you-also-know-what is appropriately pathetic, and scored big post-OLIVER! with a plethora of recording dates and TV appearances.

Natch, ya gotta mention the kiddies, notably The Artful Dodger, here aced by the incorrigibly sooty-faced Jack Wild (who ultimately scored a coup on the American children's series H.R. Pufnstuff). By no fault of his own, something about Wild proved unsettling for yours truly until it dawned upon me that he resembled a drag queen version of Sarah Hyland from Modern Family.

The lead, Mark Lester, was another tyke who leaped to instant fame; it looks as if they deliberately tried to find a child who could have been John Howard Davies’ son/double (Oliver from the 1948 Lean rendition). Remarkably sympathetic and not obnoxious (two kid actor traits I find to be virtually non-existent), he fit the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time role to a pint-sized “t.” Lester went on to star in a number of features, including the pseudo-giallo Sudden Terror, which, no doubt, prepared him for his later vocation as the CEO of an acupuncture clinic. A brilliant array of famed Brit thesps, including Harry Seacombe, Peggy Mount, Leonard Rossiter, Hugh Griffith and James Hayter enthusiastically people the balance of the pic's 153 minute running time.

Personally, for me the primary reason OLIVER! basks in that win/win glow is due to the participation of Oliver Reed in the part he was born to play, Bill Sikes (in fact, I prefer to think that the title refers to Reed and not the Dickens sprout). With the arrival of Reed, OLIVER! takes an alarmingly monstrous descent into Hammer Film territory. It's as if no one told Reed that this was a musical, but rather a John Gilling exploration of debauchery and torture. It was the only time Reed would work with his uncle Carol.

Now I have to say, that prior to OLIVER! we savvy horror fans were well-acquainted with Ollie, who actually did achieve a modicum of fame while under contract to Hammer (the happiest time of his career, according to the actor). His perfect casting as Leon the Lycanthrope in Terence Fisher's Curse of the Werewolf (1961) endeared him to legions of supernatural flicker fans. Subsequently, we all understood that no matter what role he played, Oliver Reed was always Leon the Lycanthrope with 24/7 being the time of the full moon. Post-OLIVER! the rest of the world finally got it; Ollie skyrocketed to super-stardom. “I'm the biggest star this country's got!” he boasted proudly, and for a while, he was. Why? Reed exuded a danger vibe that could go off at any moment; it made watching him a constant exciting treat. That this happened both on and off the screen was insignificant – although it is worth noting some specific examples in order to put his Bill Sikes in proper context.

That Ollie liked to drink is an understatement. Also his undoing. You know – sober a prince, pissed a fiend. Reed engaged in a variety of inventive drinking tournaments, including the Wimbeldon Eight, where within a given allotment of time, he and some buddies would map out a pub route, drinking their way across London (this eventually escalated to an all-time record for the game when Reed announced with pride that he had consumed 126 pints within a 24-hour period). During one such early outing, at a joint known as The Crazy Elephant, Reed took on an equally besotted trio of rival drinkers. Before the actor knew it, one of the thugs had brandished a knife and cut half of Ollie's face off. Cognizant enough to dash toward the hospital, he was greeted by screams (from nurses and patients) in the Emergency Ward. Amazingly, they slapped his face back onto the side of his head and were able to effectively stitch him back together (even under makeup the left cheek scars are visible in his movies, but especially on this Blu-Ray; as an in-joke Sikes’s pit bull also sports facial disfigurement). Upon staggering home, his recent bride Kate, shrieked, “You stupid bastard!” followed by her snarky observation that at least Hammer can save money on his fright makeup. Humor-wise, she was Ollie's ideal mate; on another occasion, knowing that he was auditioning for a gay director, she inscribed “This is mine” on his penis.

And speaking of his penis, it became almost as famous as its owner. Dubbing it “My Mighty Mallet,” Reed's member became so popular it's astounding that it didn't have its own agent. It was his pride and joy – so much so that once, while on leave from the National Service, he staggered into a Chinese tattoo parlor (pissed of course) insistent that eagle's claws be emblazoned across his shaft. The elderly female artist agreed and, needle in hand, fulfilled her customer's wish – halting sporadically with jab-in-the-gut demands of “Make it bigger, make it bigger!”

When a shock-searching lady journalist once asked him if it was true about the mallet, Reed happily removed his trousers and whipped it out in front of a gang of taken-aback reporters and photographers. They were in the lobby of a hotel at the time.

Reed's well-covered feud with fellow hell-raiser Richard Harris was a much-lauded battle that unleashed a library of hilarious publicity. Commenting on an upcoming Harris love scene with Raquel Welch, Reed quipped, “With his toupee and her falsies they would be perfect for each other.” Harris rescinded by sending him a gift-wrapped oblong box containing a pair of crutches; upon one was carved “Ken Russell,” and on the other “Glenda Jackson.”

It was Ollie's imbibing and carousing that cemented his reputation as a friggin' lunatic. During production of The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday, Reed befriended the picture's accountant and his girlfriend. Then one evening, in the location motel restaurant, he demanded they leave the premises. When asked why, Reed sneered, “I'm going to smash this fucking place up in ten minutes and I wouldn't want your lady friend to get hurt.” As they quickly crossed the courtyard to their bungalow, the pair heard a crash and a crowd screaming. It was this kind frivolous behavior that eventually had the actor banned from most hotels, motels, B&Bs and trailer parks throughout the civilized world. It got to the point that when a Reed movie was on-location, the cast and crew would be ensconced in one residence while Ollie had to be situated in a separate dwelling, sometimes as far as twenty miles away. Even then, hoteliers inquired if they were allowed to lock the actor up at night.

Soon after OLIVER!, when Reed ruled, he purchased a castle – and drove the local village inhabitants to near fits. Disappearing for long stretches of time, Reed would pop up, stewed to the gills, coaching his abandoned girlfriend on what to tell authorities, should the situation arise. After one particularly lengthy sojourn, Ollie arrived, holding up a seemingly comatose compadre. It was then he whispered perhaps the most frightening words anyone can utter to a loved one: “I want you to meet my new best friend, Keith Moon.”

If Reed could have picked his own death, he probably couldn't have done better than the one that awaited him: dropping dead in a pub while on-location for Gladiator; he was buying shots for fans and local drinkers, while regaling them with cherished Ollie follies.

That Carol Reed was his uncle remained a connection Ollie termed a hindrance; he hated nepotism, and was loathe to rely upon it. In his salad days, a dozen years before OLIVER!, he did approach his already wildly successful relation with hopes of getting a gig. The elder Reed suggested he hang out at the Ritz Grill – a posh establishment the younger Reed couldn't even imagine entering, let alone drinking in. Ollie bit his lip, knowing he had wasted his time (class-conscious Uncle Carol lived on another planet as far as he was concerned). When the director advised his nephew to join a rep group, Reed snapped back, “I don't give a damn about the theater! It's films I'm interested in!” and stormed out. When casting Bill Sikes, it was Carol who initially reneged, similarly due to nepotism. Producer Woolf intervened, insisting that the then 28-year-old Reed was the only one even close to the part. It should also be stated that Reed is the only principal in OLIVER! who doesn't at any juncture burst into song (although Lester's vocals were dubbed by arranger Green's daughter Kathie). Just as well. Several years later, during a disastrous recording session for Tommy, Pete Townshend became so enraged at Ollie's inability to carry a tune that he threatened to kill him.

Ollie's bull-in-a-china-shop presence placed all the cast members on edge during OLIVER!, specifically the child actors. Lester recalls “Oliver arrived on the set fully made-up and mentally into his part. He terrified the living daylights out of me. I think we were all frightened of him. I remembered looking into Ron Moody's eyes...and even at my age, seeing real fear!”

UK critics agreed, indicating that Reed's psychotic aura helped make OLIVER! “...the most non-U subject ever to receive a U certificate.”

Reed did finally lighten up toward the end of the production. As Lester recounts, “He got me and Jack Wild completely drunk on vodka by spiking our Cokes. I remember getting home and my mother putting me in the bath with all my clothes on.”

The production values in OLIVER! are, as viewers might expect, lavishly spectacular. The 19th-century scale exteriors (along with Victorian sets for Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes) kept a good part of the British film industry thriving for years. Period goth flicks and sex romps like Hands of the Ripper, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, The Creeping Flesh, The Best House in London and Lock Up Your Daughters were automatically elevated to impressive quality status way beyond their modest budgets.

The Technicolor and Panavision cinematography is by the wonderful d.p. Oswald Morris. The dazzling Blu-Ray results exhibit startling clarity, most prominently the minute background details of the meticulous art direction. The 5.1 stereo-surround (accessible as an Isolated Sound Track) jubilantly bellows OLIVER!’s repertoire with the bombastic subtlety of Ethel Merman doing Metallica covers.

Say what you want about Singin' in the Rain's “Broadway Melody” number, but, truthfully, can it compare to the “Consider Yourself” energetic armies of Cockneys high-stepping amongst meat carcasses in the slaughterhouse district? Don't answer. Just buy the damn thing already! But, to be on the safe side, take extra precaution to make sure no one picks your pocket (although who would do such a thing...I couldn't say).

OLIVER! Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 stereo-surround DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.

Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].

OLIVER REED SIDEBAR: Reed's outrageous talk-show appearances on both sides of the pond can be readily accessed on YouTube; I recommend ALL of them, from his 1987 looks-could-kill confrontation with David Letterman to his slurring of The Troggs’ “Wild Thing” during a 1992 appearance on The Word. Two addictive books are also mandatory for Ollie aficionados, Evil Spirits: The Life of Oliver Reed by Cliff Goodwin and Hell-raisers: the Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed by Robert Sellers.

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