The Christmas Spirit of Oliver!
In A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens gave the world a vision of Christmas – with its contrasting views of deprivation and plenty, callousness and conscience, exuberance and mortality – that endures to this day. Its mixture of seasonal merriment and spiritual redemption lent itself to two musical TV adaptations, one in 1954 with Fredric March as Ebenezer Scrooge that featured music by Bernard Herrmann and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and the more jaunty The Stingiest Man in Town two years later with Basil Rathbone embodying Scrooge and a score by composer Fred Spielman and lyricist Janice Torre. But the musical adaptation of another Dickens classic, with similar tropes of struggle and skullduggery, definitively made the case for song and dance in Dickens’ hardscrabble Victorian world. That would be Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, an instantaneous triumph when it opened in London in the summer of 1960 and a follow-up Broadway run that opened at the tail-end of the holiday season in January 1963. The score was rich in rousing ensemble numbers and plaintive ballads and if the story of a young orphan’s London adventures with a gang of thieves had nothing to do with Christmas, the spirit with which it was staged and performed generated a feeling of holiday festivity. So it seemed entirely appropriate that the film version of Oliver!, an elaborately crafted, exuberantly staged and enormously populated extravaganza directed by the great Carol Reed, became Columbia Pictures’ roadshow gift to the colonies when it arrived here this week in 1968. Reed had been laureled for urban-set masterworks like Odd Man Out and The Third Man, and exceptional work with child actors in The Fallen Idol and A Kid for Two Farthings. So he was well equipped to steer this massive project that explored the bedazzlement and terrors of wily ragamuffins amid the shadowy byways, bustling public squares and stately townhomes of a Dickensian John Box-designed London. It was a collaborative effort that imported some Hollywood knowhow in the form of musical adaptor John Green and choreographer Onna White (upping the ante of a stage original that was modestly orchestrated and sparely danced), but all the elements stayed true to Dickens. The exceptional players – Ron Moody as Fagin (from the original 1960 cast), Reed’s nephew Oliver as a totally menacing Bill Sikes, newcomer Shani Wallis as Nancy, marvelous Harry Secombe (who played a musical Pickwick on London and Broadway a few years before) as Bumble, and Mark Lester and Jack Wild as the pivotal youngsters Oliver Twist and The Artful Dodger – none of whom could be called stars, nonetheless couldn’t be bettered. Following box-office success and six Academy Awards® (including Best Picture, with Reed, Box, Green and White also honored), Oliver!, which of course can be savored any day of the year on Twilight Time’s resplendent hi-def Blu-ray, is the Charles Dickens-inspired holiday season gift of 1968 that still feels like Christmas whenever you visit it. P.S.: After the original Oliver! showed the world what could be joyously and poignantly spun from Dickens, A Christmas Carol has been lovingly regifted in beloved musicalized adaptations aplenty by the likes of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol), Leslie Bricusse (Scrooge), Alan Menken and Lynn Ahrens (A Christmas Carol) and others. Oliver! truly gave rise to more food, glorious food to feast upon.