Thursday, April 24, 2014


"I am big. It's the pictures that got small!" – Norma Desmond - Sunset Blvd.

That oft-quoted Gloria Swanson line has endured because it conveys so much Classic Hollywood truth. At least, it's true in the case of Joan Crawford. The Oscar-winning actress (with a capital-A) dubbedwith equal parts admiration and castigation"The Ultimate Movie Star" of Hollywood's Golden Age, who saw her decades-long status as the last of the grande dames of the silver screen flounder as the larger-than-life scale of motion pictures shrunk to the size of a TV set. 
Getting kicked by Bette Davis in the anteroom of a decaying Hollywood mansion in 1962s, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was Crawford's last onscreen pairing with anyone even remotely able to keep in pace with her particular brand of old-school star wattage. Following that, every film role and episodic TV appearance only seemed to emphasize the Brobdingnagian degree to which the 5'5" actress towered over her second-rate material and dwarfed the lilliputian talents of her co-stars and directors.
Joan Crawford as Lucy Harbin (close-ups like this don't just happen, folks)
Diane Baker as Carol Harbin
George Kennedy as Leo Krause
John Anthony Hayes as Michael Fields
There's no denying that Joan Crawford was an actress given to theatrically histrionic excesses and a to-the-manner-born camera hog prone to mannered, over-stylized gestures and gimmicks that morphed over time into camp and self-parody. And sure, the severe, mannish extremes of her late-career physical appearance lamentably coincided with an accelerating artificiality and lack of concern for subtlety in her acting (which wasn't all that subtle to begin with) that caused her to come across more like a haughty female impersonator than one of the great beauties of Hollywood's Golden Age. But, however one may feel about Crawford, it's difficult to imagine anyone thinking the star of Mildred Pierce and A Woman's Face deserved the likes of William Castle; a charming, obviously sweet-natured guy, but arguably one of the most pedestrian movie directors ever to hoist a megaphone.
Rochelle Hudson and Leif Erickson as Emily and Bill Cutler
You'd think, what with my being such a devotee of entertainingly bad movies, I'd number myself among those who regard William  "King of the Bs" Castle as some kind of patron saint of schlock. I certainly can attest to having my favorites (those being: Strait-Jacket, Homicidal, and I Saw What You Did). And I even concede that the worst of them are often so inoffensively lightweight that they somehow manage to be curiously entertaining. If not always quite bearable. But beyond having a nose for bizarre and offbeat material, Castle has always struck me as a bit middle-of-the-road in his approach. He lacked the elemental vulgarity necessary for creating truly epic bad films. Something about him always seemed too bland and suburban, perhaps too decent or too sane, to ever really go to the dark places the topics of his films suggested.
William Castle was a showman, a producer, and an inveterate huckster. But as a director, he appeared to have no demons to exorcise, no overarching ambitions to surmount, and wholly lacking that spark of neurotic lunacy that made the films of directors like Ed Wood (Plan 9 From Outer Space), Bert I. Gordon (Attack of the Puppet People), and his idol, Alfred Hitchcock, so compelling...and weird. In fact, one of my chief frustrations with William Castle films is the nagging certainty that all of his movies would have been vastly improved had Castle stuck to producing, and had somehow been prohibited from directing them himself. (See: Rosemary's Baby).
When I was growing up, Joan Crawford's name was synonymous with B-horror movies. It was years before I knew her from anything other than Berserk, Trog, Strait-Jacket, and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? 

And while I maintain that an actress of Joan Crawford's reputation didn't deserve a director as mediocre as William Castle, there's also little question in my mind that, at this particular stage in her career, Joan Crawford (and her ego) desperately needed a director like William Castle. He respected her legacy and star status and tried to do her his own bargain-basement way. Indeed, from everything I've read, Castle was so beside himself at having actually landed a bonafide movie star for one of his on-a-shoestring horror opuses (blowsy Joan Blondell had initially been cast in Strait-Jacket) that he treated Crawford in a manner more befitting her days as MGM's reigning boxoffice darling than as the star of secondary roles in The Best of Everything (1959) and The Caretakers (1963).

Obsequiously conceding to her every whim (approval over script, cast, and cameraman; 15% participation in profits; hefty Pepsi-Cola product placement), Castle gave Joan her first sole leading-lady role since 1957s The Story of Esther Costello. So what if it was in another derivative, cut-rate homage/ripoff in Castle's tireless (tiresome) quest to duplicate Alfred Hitchcock's career? At least Joan and her falsies didn't have to compete with Bette Davis for camera time.
For Those Who Think Young
Crawford, "Star of the First Magnitude" and Pepsi-Cola Board of  Directors member,
was not above a bit of old-fashioned hucksterism

An original screenplay penned by Psycho's Robert Bloch, Strait-Jacket casts Crawford as rural hotbox Lucy Harbin ("Very much a woman, and very much aware of the fact"). First glimpsed in a 1944 flashback through a Vaseline haze we'll come to grow progressively more familiar with, 57-year-old Crawford (unconvincingly) plays 25-year-old Lucy as a superannuated Sadie Thompson driven to murder when she catches her faithless 2nd husband (Rock Hudson protégée Lee Majors making his film debut) in bed with another woman (Patricia Crest). Seizing upon a nearby axe as her weapon of choice, luckless Lucy is nevertheless favored with a rare crime of passion twofer: the raven-haired honky-tonk homewrecker lying next to her husband obligingly lies quietly, patiently awaiting her turn until after Lucy has completed vigorously bisecting her hubby's head from his bare-chested torso.
From the repeated, wild-eyed hacks taken at the now literally separated lovers, it's clear Lucy has been driven crackers by the night's events and is soon carted off to the funny farm wearing the film's titular item of clothing. But no matter how unfortunate Lucy's timing, winning by a landslide in the "worst evening ever" sweepstakes is Lucy's 6-year-old daughter Carol, whose world-class kindertrauma encompasses being left alone in a desolate farmhouse while her father barhops; being awakened by said father and local floozy, who then proceed to make out in front of her without benefit of a closed door. Finally, to have it all capped off by bearing witness to her axe-wielding mother going postal on the lovers while dressed in a garish, floral-print dress, cacophonous Auntie Mame charm bracelets, and tacky, ankle-strap shoes. It's up for grabs which was more horrific for the poor child, the bloody murder, or her mother's fashion sense. 
Vicki Cos as young Carol Harbin
Diane Baker wasn't required to play Carol as a child, but it's up for debate as to whether 25-year-old Baker would have made a more convincing 6-year-old than Crawford does a 25-year-old

Jump ahead twenty years: Carol is a lovely, well-adjusted (?), budding sculptress living on a farm with her uncle and aunt (Leif Erickson and Rochelle Hudson), about to embark on a new life with her rich fiance-to-be (John Anthony Hayes). The only monkey wrench in the works is that her mother, who has been institutionalized all these years, is scheduled for release. Will it be "I Love Lucy Harbin" or "The Snake Pit: Country Style"? Any way you cut it (heh-heh), the stage has been set for a doozy of a family reunion.
Ethel Mertz: "Are you insinuating that I'm daft, loony, off my rocker, out of my head?"
Fred Mertz: "Well, that covers it pretty well... ."

Two words: Joan Crawford. For fans of over-the-top Joan (that would be: everybody) who heretofore have had to content themselves with brief-but-welcome snippets of unbridled ham popping up in otherwise reined-in performances held in precarious check by watchful directors, Strait-Jacketto use the hyperbole of old-movie publicitygives you Joan Crawford as you want to see her…the Joan Crawford you love…the Joan Crawford whose take-no-prisoners approach to acting and total disregard for the performance rhythms of her co-stars sets the screen ablaze with the fiery passions of a woman's dangerous desires.
You'll never convince me that a director as uninspired as William Castle had anything to do with Joan Crawford's performance in Strait-Jacket. Hers is a performance culled from hours of self-directed rehearsals and meticulous attention paid to doing "something" every single moment the camera is pointed at her. In fact, to hear co-star Diane Baker tell it, Crawford was, for all intents and purposes, the director of Strait-Jacket; everything she wanted, she got. And for that, you won't hear me complaining. Without Crawford, Strait-Jacket would be as sluggish as most of Castle's other films, and indeed, all scenes in this film that don't include Crawford prove to be inert, exposition-heavy sequences shot in the bland "alking heads in medium shot" style of television.  
Pepsi-Cola Vice-President of PR, Mitchell Cox as Dr. Anderson
Maybe it was the contractually-mandated ice-cold sets she insisted upon (biographers have stated this was as much for makeup and skin concerns as keeping her energy up), or the vodka she laced her Pepsi with, but Crawford's scenes are substantially more "spirited" than anything else in the film. No wonder--outside of promotional cardboard axes handed out to theater patrons when it opened--Strait-Jacket is one of the few William Castle productions released without one of his trademark gimmicks. Who needs gimmicks when you have Joan Crawford?
Now, how did that get there?
Evoking Charles Dickens' antithetical quote: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Strait-Jacket is one of Joan Crawford's worst films, yet strangely, also one of her best. Crawford is one of my favorite actresses, and with each new (old) film I discover, my appreciation and admiration for her grows. There's not another actor I can think of who is quite so good when they're bad. The joys to be had in watching Strait-Jacket is seeing Joan, the terrific actress, going mano-a-mano against Joan, the free-range ham.
Crawford is rather remarkable in being able to wrest genuine sympathy and pathos out of the sketchily-drawn character of Lucy Harbin. She does some of the finest acting of her career in the sequence in which she gazes at the youthful image of herself sculpted by her daughter (actually sculpted by artist Yucca Salamunich on the set of A Woman's Face in 1941). She's touching and very effective in conveying the character's melancholy and regret over the years lost and beauty faded. She completely outclasses the film in the sequence. As many biographers have suggested, had Strait-Jacket not so obviously worn the stamp of being a Z-grade exploitationer, the more quiet aspects of Crawford's performance (the early, post-asylum scenes are wonderful) would surely have been looked upon more favorably by critics.
On the polar-opposite end of the subtlety spectrum is the sequence that fans of over-the-top camp have made into Strait-Jacket's setpiece. In it, Joan's character undergoes a transformation akin to demonic possession when she gets a makeover that has her trussed up in clothes and makeup identical to that which she wore 20 years earlier. Guarded and hesitant before, Lucy instantly reverts to her (presumably) old ways and turns a polite meet-and-greet with her daughter's handsome fiance into the 1964 equivalent of a lap dance. 
The sight of a grotesquely-made-up Joan Crawford turning her man-trap wiles on a man young enough to be her son is more terrifying than anything Castle was able to accomplish with his fake-looking axe murders. In the 2002 book Joan Crawford: The Essential Biography, the authors state that Joan was quite taken with the good looks of actor John Anthony Hayes, and in response to an admiring comment made by someone alluding to Hayes mainly acting with his lips, Crawford is quoted as replying, "Yes, and such sexy lips, too!" All of which goes to set up, if not exactly explain, why Crawford's unique method of (wholly improvised) seduction during this sequence involves feeling about the actor's mouth like a Braille student and practically shoving her entire hand down his throat. Sexy.

"Spot the Real-Life Parallels" is a game that adds zest to the viewing of any Joan Crawford film.
The Neatness Thing
"Is that the way you're going to do it?"
Judgmental Joan: No matter how hard you try, you know you'll never quite measure up
Daughter Issues
Joan always knew where to find the boys AND the booze
"Tina!! Bring me the axe!!"
"If she doesn't like you...she can make you disappear."

I've never fully understood why so many "bad" movies outdistance more accomplished films when it comes to sheer entertainment value, so perhaps that's why I treasure them so much. With boring and banal being the most frequent by-product of professional ineptitude, there's something serendipitous about discovering...what can you call it...the perfect "hot mess" that is an enjoyably bad movie.
Meeting the In-Laws
Edith Atwater and Howard St. John as Alison &Raymond Fields
Strait-Jacket is a veritable laundry list of filmmaking flaws: a terrible, ill-used music score; bland performances (although I really like Diane Baker and George Kennedy); unsure pacing; flat cinematography, and editing that appears calculated to enhance the artificiality of the violence; a cliche-filled script; and no distinct visual style beyond "Make sure they can see it" and "Make sure it's in focus." Yet it's a movie I can watch repeatedly and still find new things to enjoy. The breeziest 93-minutes of film you're likely to see. Of course, the one-of-a-kind force of nature known as Joan Crawford accounts for 90% of this.
But whether you watch Strait-Jacket for the talent or the travesty, it remains a movie that doesn't disappoint. If nothing else, it's a marvelous example of the kind of movies being offered big-time stars as the pictures started to get smaller.
Watch Your Step, indeed!

The absolutely delightful "How to Plan a Movie Murder" featurette for Strait-Jacket with Joan Crawford, William Castle, and screenwriter Robert Bloch: HERE

Diane Baker enjoyed a good relationship with Joan Crawford. She appeared with the actress in The Best of Everything and Strait-Jacket. Still, according to Baker, that relationship soured during the making of Della (originally titled Fatal Confinement) an unsold 1964 pilot for a Paul Burke TV series called Royal Bay

Joan Crawford's wardrobe & makeup tests for Strait-Jacket HERE

1982 Interview with Steven Spielberg on working with Joan on Night Gallery HERE

Strait-Jacket opened in New York on Wednesday, January 22, 1964. First-nighters were treated to a personal appearance by Joan Crawford and co-star John Anthony Hayes. 

Pure William Castle
The Columbia Lady loses her head

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014

Saturday, April 12, 2014

OLIVER! 1968

Lest frequent readers of this blog (and bless you all, every one!) assume the entirety of my childhood was spent watching only age-inappropriate movies that bore the tag “Suggested for Mature Audiences,” I present as Exhibit A: Oliver!; a G-rated favorite that not only stands as testament to my occasionally allowing the odd kid-friendly film to crack my self-styled precocity, but as proof that, at heart, I'm really a big, gooey, sloppy sentimentalist of the highest order.
Mark Lester as Oliver Twist
Ron Moody as Fagin
Jack Wild as Jack Dawkins, aka The Artful Dodger 
Shani Wallis as Nancy 
Oliver Reed as Bill Sikes
Oliver! (oh, how I loathe exclamation points in musical titles) is the big-scale movie adaptation of Lionel Bart’s Tony Award-winning 1963 Broadway musical version of Charles Dickens’ 1838 novel Oliver Twist. A show that, having premiered to great success in London’s West End in 1960, is credited with being the first modern British musical to be transferred successfully to Broadway. 
Taking place in the by-turns poverty-stricken/opulent-wealth areas of London in the early 1830s, Oliver! relates the parable of workhouse orphan Oliver Twist (Lester) who, after running away from an abusive apprenticeship, is taken under the wing of streetwise pickpocket, the Artful Dodger (Wild), and finds a home of sorts with paternal petty thief, Fagin (Moody) and his motley crew of larcenous street urchins.
As befitting any Dickens story, we have a plenitude of scruffy, colorful, supporting characters. A maternal strumpet (prostitute Nancy played with winning charm by Shani Wallace), a brutish villain (the positively terrifying Oliver Reed), and the usual fateful quirks of coincidence and heredity (this time in the form of victim-turned-benefactor/possible blood-relation, Mr. Brownlow [Joseph O’Conor]) offering the only glimmers of hope in lives ruled by class and position.
Joseph O'Conor as Mr. Brownlow
That I fell in love with a big, splashy, arguably over-produced musical is no surprise; that said musical featured swarms of singing and dancing children marked Oliver! as something of a departure for me. For in spite of being a mere kid myself I was 11-years-old when I saw Oliver!I was inclined to find child actors a distinctly insufferable breed (a point of view that hasn’t altered much over the years). They’re either trying too hard to be cute, tugging too aggressively at our heartstrings, or so grotesquely artificial and self-consciously “on” that they come across as pocket-size adults. That I never got around to seeing either The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins until I was well into my 30s is due largely to the fact that for many years I went out of my way to avoid movies that even hinted at the presence of adorable tykes. Generally, I prefer onscreen depictions of children to hew more closely to how they appear to me in real life: i.e., Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed or Jane Withers in Bright Eyes.

I suppose Oliver! conforms to my flinty worldview by being faithful to Dickens’ customary juxtaposing of unapologetic sentimentality with harsh social realism. An alliance which, happily, leaves little room for cute. In fact, the angel-faced Oliver may be the story’s catalyst, but everyone knows the real stars are Fagin, The Artful Dodger, and the ragtag gang of East End reprobates that hang out at The Three Cripples Tavern. Making his musical film debut, director Carol Reed (Odd Man Out, The Third Man) is to be credited for his deft balancing of the brutal with the bathetic, granting the somewhat softened events and characters of Dickens' novel with just the right amount of edge to keep the still-and-all jaunty musical from slipping into mawkishness.
Oliver!’s scruffy band of street urchins are well-cast and well-directed, convincing in their overall grubbiness and commitment to staying in character. Contrast this with John Huston’s 1982 film adaptation of Oliver!’s sex-change musical doppelgänger, Annie: a film where the affected, stagy performances of the orphans hint at a premature vocational enrollment that nevertheless fails to prevent them from staring directly into the camera lens at regular intervals.
Peggy Mount and Harry Secombe as Mrs. & Mr. Bumble
The harshness of Dickens' characters is leavened considerably by these roles assayed by comic actors  

Oliver! is one of my favorite period musicals. And by period, I mean the mid to late 1960s; that brief but prolific moment in time when movie theaters across the nation were full of the sound of music (as opposed to today, where all you hear coming from cineplexes is the whoosh of superhero capes). A time when movie studios, in hopes of unearthing another durable cash cow on the order of Julie Andrews’ nuns and Nazis romp, were falling over themselves buying up the film rights to any and all Broadway musicals. Sometimes before the shows had even opened. For example: the 1968 Burt Bacharach musical, Promises, Promises, a musical version of Billy Wilder's The Apartment, in spite of several stabs at treatments over the yearsone to which John Travolta was briefly attachednever did make it to the big screen.

In 1968 alone, Oliver! duked it out at the boxoffice against Funny Girl, Finian’s Rainbow, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Julie Andrews’ Star! (those exclamation points again…). All elephantine musicals of disparate merit, but each conceived as a roadshow attraction and each boasting studio-bankrupting budgets. Of that roster, only the twin Columbia Pictures releases Funny Girl and Oliver! emerged bonafide hits; Funny Girl besting Oliver! at the boxoffice, but Oliver! topping Funny Girl’s eight Oscar nominations with a whopping eleven, culminating in a 6-award sweep for that film, including Best Director and Best Picture. The latter bit sticking most in the craw of classic film fans.
The Artful Dodger welcomes Oliver into the fold in the rousing show-stopper "Consider Yourself"
The influence of Oliver! on musicals of the era can be seen in the films: Bedknobs & Broomsticks, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Scrooge, Mr. Quilp, and of course, the aforementioned Annie

Although the recipient of near-unanimous praise on its release (even Pauline Kael gave it a rave), virtually no one happening upon Oliver! today seems able to fathom how a pleasant, inarguably professional, but decidedly old-school and unremarkable musical entertainment like Oliver! managed to walk off with Best Picture and Best Director awards in a year that featured both Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (a truly galling bit of trivia, as it wasn't even nominated).
While Rosemary's Baby gets my vote as Best Picture of 1968, If I had to stick to those nominated, Oliver! would actually be my personal choice. For what did we have?: The Lion in WinterPeter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn yelling for two hours; Funny Girlaka, the Streisand Show;  Rachel, RachelPaul Newman gives wife Joanne Woodward a 10th Anniversary present; Romeo & Juliet hippified, youthquake Shakespeare mitigated by codpieces.

The problem seems to be that although beloved by many, the passing of time hasn’t been particularly kind to Oliver!. So in failing to be embraced by the same cloak of nostalgic revisionism that came to redeem onetime kiddie-flops like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Chitty Chitty Bang BangOliver! tends to show up on “Least-deserved Best Picture Oscar winners” lists, unfairly lumped together with genuine head-scratchers like Shakespeare in Love and The Greatest Show on Earth.
Trouble in Mind
Notwithstanding the fact that I’m probably the only person ever to get all blubbery and teary-eyed upon just hearing the first notes of “I’d Do Anything” (hands-down favorite song in the entire score, everything about that number just floors me), Oliver! is mostly just a film I enjoy a great deal, not one whose themes resonate with me on some broader, deeper level (like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol). 
Apart from it being my absolute favorite screen adaptation of Oliver Twist ever, capturing the look and feel of Dickens in an appealingly light/dark storybook fashion, I just think Oliver! is one of those solid, wholly enjoyable, escapist movies that so successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do, and does so in a manner that makes it all look so effortless, I’m afraid it has become a victim of its virtues. It’s become too easy to take the skill, talent, and craft behind Oliver! for granted. Which is rather surprising given how comfortable we seem to have grown with musical mediocrity: i.e., the film adaptations of Nine, Dreamgirls, and Mamma Mia ! (there’s that punctuation again…).
Oliver! turns orphan Oliver Twist into something of a co-star in his own story, so my emotional involvement in the film has always been limited to Nancy's maternal concern for the boy and the lengths she goes to protect him. On that score, Shani Wallis' performance is a real standout.

Oliver! is far from a perfect film, and in a way, I fully get how people can admire it and respect it, yet still not find it to be their cup of tea (insert British joke here). I relate this to my own feelings about the film version of My Fair Lady, a perfectly wonderful musical of its kind, but one I can barely tolerate. If you're not already fond of musicals, Oliver! is one so traditional in form, content, and execution that it's unlikely to produce many converts. The opening scenes at the workhouse, stylized and theatrical, take some getting used to, and by the time they launch into the sing-songy title tune, non-fans are likely to be heading for the exits. The only part that drags for me is the ballad "As Long as He Needs Me," a song well-performed by Wallis, but so sung to death on variety shows during the '60s that all it inspires in me is a Pavlovian need to take a restroom break.
Hugh Griffith as The Magistrate

As is often the case with films, the best roles in Oliver! belong to the villains. Thus it’s hardly a surprise that Ron Moody’s Fagin and Jack Wild’s Artful Dodger were the performances singled out for Oscar nods. Personal favorite, 15-year-old Jack Wild, the real breakout star of Oliver!, is like a Cockney Cagney, commanding his scenes with an assurance and star quality that easily justified his short-lived tenure as a '70s preteen heartthrob and star of the preternaturally weird TV show, HR Pufnstuf.
As Yul Brenner so embodied the King of Siam in The King and I that thereafter, I could never picture anyone else in the role, such is true of Ron Moody's Fagin. His may not be the sinister character of the book (Alec Guinness' grotesque performance and makeup in David Lean's 1948 version of Oliver Twist may be closer to what Dickens had in mind, but I seriously can't even watch it) but Moody's hammy take on Fagin as a harmless, self-interested charlatan is more to my liking.
Beating out possible contenders Peter Sellers, Peter O'Toole, and (God help us) Dick Van Dyke, relative unknown Ron Moody had the opportunity to recreate the role he originated on the London stage

Oliver Reed (nephew of Oliver!'s director, Carol Reed) is unsurpassed at playing brooding heavies, and his Bill Sikes is no exemption. Indeed, to hear surviving cast members tell it, Oliver Reed was every bit the holy terror his reputation made him out to be during filming, “He got one of my dancers pregnant!” blurted out choreographer Onna White during a 1998 Oliver! screening Q & A when asked about whether or not Reed was "difficult.” 
Something that could never happen in today's all-access, Internet environment, for years Columbia Pictures was able to keep secret the fact that the angelic singing voice coming out of  9-year-old Mark Lester was actually that of 22-year-old Kathe Green, daughter of Oliver!'s Oscar-winning music arranger, Johnny Green.

It's as easy to see why sweet-faced Mark Lester (who readily concedes to being tone-deaf and uncoordinated) was cast, just as it's easy to overlook his understated contribution to the film. His is a reactive and sympathetic role, and on both fronts the appealingly natural actor triumphs by somehow not getting on everyone's nerves. If you think that's a small issue, check out the little boys cast as Patrick Dennis in Auntie Mame and Mame, sometime.

You'd have to have lived as long as I and bore witness to the gradual decline in all things musical and terpsichorean (don't get me started ... Rob Marshall/Glee/animated musicals) to understand the feelings of relief and gratitude which converge within me when I watch a film like Oliver!. What a miracle just to see a live-action musical that actually holds together! To have a cohesive plot that doesn't insult intelligence; tuneful songs staged and choreographed with variance (some intimate, some large-scale, some comedic) and innovation; actors who (by and large) can sing, dance AND act; British roles assayed by actual British actors; and, most importantly, a director with a cinematic eye who knows how to use film to tell a story.
I love Oliver!'s whimsical art direction and set design
Second-Act opener "Who Will Buy?": Probably one of the best large-scale choreographers of her day, Onna White (Bye Bye Birdie) pulls out the stops in Oliver!'s massive musical set pieces
Example of the amazing work by cinematographer Oswald Morris (The Wiz
 Jack Wild, Shani Wallis, Mark Lester, and Shelia White as Bet (Nancy's younger sister)
"I'd Do Anything" (above): a perfect example of a musical number that could have ground the film to a halt, but director Reed and choreographer Onna White keep it light and amusing while using it as a device to reveal character and relationships. The song is performed as an unwitting parody of the kind of life Oliver is actually born to, but beneath the lyrics of exaggerated romantic fealty and behind the spoofing of formal airs and graces, the characters are revealing their genuine familial attachment to one another. Nancy and Bet being the surrogate mothers, Fagin, the stern (but ultimately playful) father. We see the origin of Nancy's protectiveness toward Oliver (she sees right away that he's not like the others), and get to contrast this more humane communal environment for wayward boys with that of the government-run workhouses. The entire number is marvelously conceived and shot (check out how many camera angles they squeeze out of that small set), the song is adorable, and I can say it's honestly my favorite sequence in the entire movie.
A favorite unsung character in Oliver! is Bill Sikes' faithful dog, Bulls Eye 
Oliver Reed in Life magazine 1968: “Every actor knows better than to appear with animals or children, so here I am with a bloody dog and all these kids!” 

While I think I've made a pretty good case for Oliver!, cataloging its merits apropos my fondness for it, I’d be less than honest if I didn't also reveal that no small part of the soft spot I harbor for this film are tied to the nostalgia and sentiment I attach to the time, place, and circumstances by which I first came to know of it.
Oliver! premiered as part of a Christmas season roadshow/reserved ticket engagement at San Francisco’s Alexandria Theater in 1968, but as there were five of us in our household and therefore too pricey, we had to wait a few months later when it opened wide (“At popular prices!”), sans overture, intermission, and exit music. It played for weeks at my beloved Embassy Theater on Market Street – site of so many of my fondest early moviegoing memories – and I returned every weekend. I think I saw Oliver! about six times. But the best thing about seeing Oliver! for the first time was that my mom went with us.
My mom and dad were divorced at the time and my mom was several years from meeting my stepfather-to-be, so as a single, working mother of four, she counted on me and my three sisters going to the movies on Saturdays as a way to get a little peace and quiet around the house. However, on this occasion we managed to talk her into going with us, and I'll never forget how much fun it was seeing her lose herself in the movie. She was smiling, laughing, and in general acting just like one of us. My mother loved musicals (one of my sisters is named after June Allyson) and if you could have seen her that day you'd have sworn she'd transformed into a teenager right before your eyes. At one point during the "Consider Yourself" number I thought someone had kicked my seat, only to soon realize that the entire row was moving due to my mom bouncing in her seat and tapping along with the rhythm! One of my happiest memories of that day is the picture I have of my hardworking motherseen out of the corner of my eyesoftly singing along with the music, looking like the happiest little girl in the world. 

Sadly, my mom passed away just last year this month, and in knowing that Oliver! was one of her favorite movies, I guess I can't help but associate it with very happy memories.  

Childhood ain't what it used to be.

You can read about the sad circumstances of the late Jack Wild's adult life online. Take a look at this interview from 2002 (he passed away in 2006) in which he talks about his career and Oliver! YouTube

See Jack Wild sing "Pronouns" from the TV program H.R. Pufnstuf 

Mark Lester kept a pretty low profile in his post-Oliver! days (he's an osteopath now) only to emerge from obscurity in 2013 alleging to be the sperm-donor father of Michael Jackson's kids (!!!) HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2014