OLIVER TWIST (A Monogram Special, 1933), directed by William J. Cowan, stars child actor Dickie Moore (courtesy of Hal Roach Studios) in his first leading role in a feature film presentation. As much as this Charles Dickens based story had been told and retold numerous times during the silent era, with notable screen adaptations being Paramount (1916) with Marie Coro (Oliver) and Tully Marshall (Fagin); and First National (1922) starring Jackie Coogan (Oliver) and Lon Chaney (Fagin), it would be a matter of time before the movie audiences would get some more OLIVER TWIST, this time with sound. While major movie studios as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, RKO or Universal might have started the trend of Dickens novels transferred to film, the interesting fact was that the aforementioned major studios were the ones to follow Monogram's poverty row distribution of 1933. Universal provided GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1934), while MGM produced two of the finest of Dickens 1935 adaptations of David COPPERFIELD and A TALE OF TWO CITIES, and three years later, A Christmas CAROL (1938), but this I.E. Chadwick's production for Monogram, very much on a low-budget scale, might prove worthy in spite of disappointing presentation.
Following the opening credits, the fade-in begins with an open book on the first page to CHAPTER 1 that reads: "Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons, it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning: there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small to wit, a workhouse, and in this workhouse, was born the item of mortality whose name is prefix on the title of that chapter." The story then revolves around a young lad named Oliver Twist (Dickie Moore), an orphan in 19th century England, raised by a Mr. Bumble (Lionel Bellmore, who played Mr. Brownlow in the 1922 version), who, on his ninth birthday, puts him to work in a workhouse. After running away from slave labor and deprived of more food to eat, he journeys towards London where he encounters the likes of various people, including the Artful Dodger (Sonny Ray), Fagin (Irving Pichel) and his gang of thieves consisting of Bill and Nancy Sikes (William Boyd and Doris Lloyd); Charlie Bates (George Nash); Toby Crackit (George K. Arthur); the kindly old Mr. Brownlow (Alec B. Francis) and his pretty niece, Rose Mayley (Barbara Kent), through some twist of fate would all become part of his life.
Though many feel Dickie Moore to be both miscast and way too young in the title role, this edition to OLIVER TWIST has become his most memorable, though not fascinating. Regrettably, his performance somewhat weakens the story through scenes involving him appear to be seemingly under rehearsed. Moore reads some of his lines with no expression, as if he's reciting them for the first time. In one scene he's scrubbing the brick floor of the dining room, slips down by accident, then smilingly looks towards the camera range, loses his smile, carries his water bucker and walks away. Brutal beatings are depicted by shadows of actors hitting of whipping the floor rather than their victims. The meeting place under the London Bridge at midnight involving Nancy, Mr. Brownlow and Rose as properly captured by moments of their shadows on the wall, but in spite of this being a secret meeting, Nancy should have conversed in a whispering fashion rather than loud enough for all, including one of Fagin's spies, to hear. It's hard not to notice where Moore's face, in close up, to be covered with watery tears, and next long shot, face to be clear and dry.
Aside from faults and goofs that might have been rectified before its theatrical release, as well as elimination of certain major characters from the Dickens novel, one of the stronger aspects for this production is Irving Pichel (courtesy of Paramount Pictures). Assuming a role previously portrayed by the legendary Lon Chaney a decade ago, Pichel offers an fine re-enactment as Fagin. Doris Lloyd's Nancy is believably likable and sympathetic while William Boyd (not the Hopalong Cassidy actor) is quite intense as the menacing villain who kills without mercy. He certainly must have gotten some hissing and booing from movie audiences back in the day for a scene where he attempts to kill Nancy's dog, Bullseye.
Contrary to movie remakes, it would be a matter of time before OLIVER TWIST would be retold on the screen again. Two superior adaptations followed, the 1948 David Lean British made production, and the 1968 Columbia musical adaptation to the Broadway play that won Best Picture of that year. Once watching those, it's often hard referring back to the Dickie Moore version, which, with slow pacing sans mood musical score giving it that early talkie 1929 feel, would be an endless 70 minute bore for contemporary viewers. Initially released in theaters with opening image of Charles Dickens on the book cover of "Oliver Twist," circulating prints replace that with different title placing Irving Pichel's name next to Dickie Moore's above its OLIVER TWIST title. Unseen on broadcast television since or about 1973, OLIVER TWIST, which has fallen to public domain, became readily available again in the 1980s on home video, cable television (CBN, Nickelodian's 1988-89 presentation of "Nick and Night" Movie) and public television (part of its weekly series titled SPROCKETS) before its latter transfer onto DVD, and so forth.
While this and Monogram's follow-up literary tale of Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE (1934) with Virginia Bruce are not perfect screen adaptations to become one of the family, it would be the major studios and made for television movies that would over the years transcribe these stories again, to much better results. (**1/2)
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