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Oliver's mother, a penniless outcast, died giving birth to him. As a young boy Oliver is brought up in a workhouse, later apprenticed to an uncaring undertaker, and eventually is taken in by a gang of thieves who befriend him for their own purposes. All the while, there are secrets from Oliver's family history waiting to come to light. Written by
Oliver Twist, the novel by Charles Dickens, has had a long and unusual relationship with the cinema. Adapted numerous times (this 1922 feature was already at least the fifth), incorporating some major changes along the way which have since become accepted in future versions. Viewers today may be familiar the 1948 David Lean movie and the Lionel Bart musical, but these contain several key differences from the novel. You see, Oliver Twist was an early work by a young author, and its plotting is not perfect. This faithful adaptation reveals those shortcomings, reproducing all the far-fetched coincidence and convergence, and removing any sense of danger from the finale by having Oliver safe and sound rather than recaptured by the criminal gang.
Oliver Twist is a lengthy book and anyone wishing to adapt it has a lot of source material to pick and choose from. However for this version screenwriters (Walter Anthony and director Frank Lloyd) have attempted to cram in just about every subplot and minor character, quite a feat for a 74-minute runtime. As such there are a lot of title cards quickly glossing over some point, with characters popping up and disappearing without really being introduced. Because leading lad Jackie Coogan had found fame co-starring with Charlie Chaplin, there has been some attempt to comedy the picture up, and some half-hearted slapstick routines are the only real departures from Dickens. There's also a fair bit of en vogue cross-cutting, for example between the scene of Oliver play-acting with Mrs Bedwin and Brownlow's conversation with his friend over Oliver's character. It doesn't add much.
More promise lies in the look of the picture. The production design is fabulous with sets and costumes conjuring up the dilapidation and inequality of the era. It is especially appropriate for Dickens, rich with visual detail just as the author's work is rich with description of place and person. Director Frank Lloyd is one of the unsung heroes of this era, a great aesthetic shot composer with a painterly eye. At a time when it was really becoming commonplace to have the camera pan and tilt to follow the actors, Lloyd liked to explore the psychological effect having a character disappear off screen while the camera remained still. A fine example here is when Sykes pushes Nancy to the floor, shoving her out of the shot, revealing Fagin's concerned face in the spot where she stood. Some have dismissed Frank Lloyd as a conservative for the lack of movement in his pictures, but here we can see he uses a lot of point-of-view shots, before they really became standard. He is also pretty imaginative with his inserts, such as the one of Bullseye the dog scrabbling at the door, which was copied in a few later version of Oliver Twist. Meanwhile a lively editing pattern keeps things moving.
These days, many an adaptation of Oliver Twist is judged more than anything else on the strength of its Fagin. In this case, it was an early make-up part for horror king Lon Chaney. Chaney did his own make-up, and he has sensibly resisted making Fagin too grotesque or stereotypically Jewish (compare Alec Guinness in 1948, and cringe). Apart from the occasional shift of the eyes, this is largely a physical performance, with Chaney conveying great presence and character in his body language. As he would with many of his characters he brings out the forlornness over the overtly evil, beginning a tradition of increasingly sympathetic Fagins in successive screen versions. Chaney is unfortunately one of the few delights of the cast however. Jackie Coogan was the first major child star, but he is a disappointment here, with Lloyd failing to conjure up any of that magic that Chaplin found in him. I'm normally impressed by ubiquitous every-villain George Siegmann, but frankly his appearance as Bill Sykes is just lazy typecasting, and his performance is lacklustre. One saving grace is that, by the standards of the day, the acting is quite natural and restrained. Gladys Brockwell (Nancy) is very good in this respect, emoting well, although sadly her part is underused here.
This 1922 version of Oliver Twist is a mixed bag. On the one hand it's visually impressive with some truly memorable set-pieces such as Sykes's rooftop fall or Fagin alone in his cell. On the other it is structurally rather chaotic, full of hasty plot lines that don't get the development they require. This problem is something future adaptations would address. It's intriguing though how the looks of characters and the unfolding of key scenes are remarkably similar from one movie version to another. And this is where the talent of Charles Dickens shines through the bold twists, catchy dialogue, and larger-than-life figures that have made his work such a source of inspiration for the screen.
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