“Please sir, I want some more.”
Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist” has experienced a long and mostly honourable history in its adaptation to the screen, both large and small. It has been filmed in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere at least 18 times — first in 1906 as A Modern Oliver Twist (Vitagraph) and most recently as a British television mini-series in 1999. In between, there were 11 other big-screen versions, 8 silent and 3 sound, with the most recent being a musical version Oliver! (1968, Columbia). Additionally, there were 3 television movies and two other television mini-series. The version under review here is the ninth and last silent one, which was released in 1922 by Associated First National Pictures.
The 1922 Oliver Twist was for a time believed to be a lost film. In the early 1970s, however, a print was discovered in Yugoslavia. It lacked the intertitles so new ones were created by film distributor Blackhawk Films with the assistance of Jackie Coogan (who starred as Oliver in the film) and Sol Lesser (the film’s producer). Now Image has released the title on DVD with most favourable results.
Young Oliver Twist is left in the care of a workhouse near London when his mother dies bringing him into the world. One day, egged on by the other orphans in the workhouse, he gets up the nerve to ask for an extra serving of gruel. Shocked at such behaviour, the workhouse directors sell him to an undertaker to whom Oliver becomes an apprentice. After a run-in with another apprentice, Oliver escapes and heads to London, where tired and hungry, he encounters The Artful Dodger who promises food and shelter. It soon becomes apparent that such help comes at a price, however, for Oliver is introduced to Fagin who trains him in the art of pickpocketing and then expects Oliver to steal on the streets of the city. Oliver manages to escape into the care of the kindly Mr. Brownlow, but he is soon drawn back into Fagin’s grasp and more unfortunately that of the brutish Bill Sikes. Complications ensue including the appearance of Oliver’s half-brother, the possibility of an inheritance, an unfortunate shooting, and murder.
If by chance you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing a silent film projected at the correct film speed and with an appropriate piano or organ accompaniment, this version of the Oliver Twist tale is an engaging place to start. The film runs a brisk 74 minutes and packs a good proportion of the novel’s events into it. Filming was done in black and white with tinting added very effectively to the prints. Add to that two compelling reasons to see this film — Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney — and you can’t go wrong.
Jackie Coogan was eight years old when Oliver Twist was released. Only one year previously, he had made the break-through film, The Kid (First National) with Charlie Chaplin, that made him a star. Coogan is an almost perfect embodiment of the Oliver Twist character. His innocent, expressive young face with its quality of looking directly in the eyes of those playing opposite him makes him a sympathetic figure, yet there is from time to time a certain mischievous sparkle in his eyes that suggests he is no patsy despite outward appearances to the contrary. So he makes Oliver a character with which we can empathize and for which we can cheer, because we realize that he is often more than somewhat capable of taking care of himself. The performance is a startling one for an actor of his age and one can readily understand why he was such a huge success in the early 1920s.
Lon Chaney was 39 in 1922 and by then had acted in numerous films, his first billed appearances occurring in 1913 for Universal. He was already well known for the featured roles in which he managed to transform himself with makeup and bodily contortions into almost unrecognizable characters. In Oliver Twist, he portrays Fagin as an unforgettable figure — clad head to toe in rags, emaciated face with hooked nose and protruding tooth, claw-like hands, always hunched over. As Chaney presents him, there is also a Uriah Heep quality to his Fagin in the way he falls over himself to do Bill Sikes’ bidding. It is a characterization in the best Chaney tradition. Certainly he passed the test so far as Jackie Coogan was concerned. Coogan later commented, .”…at seven and a half, I was pretty impressionable. I was so frightened by this man; the only thing that got me out of it is when we started to do our scene and I got close to him, was the smell of spirit gum which he had used so cleverly.” (As quoted in Blake, Michael (1995). “Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces.” The Vestal Press, Ltd. Vestal, N.Y.)
Looking beyond these principal performances, the most striking thing about the film is its look. This is truly an atmospheric portrait of Dickens’ London. The sets and the costumes convey a sense of realism to the proceedings whether in the workhouse, in Fagin or Sikes’ places of abode, or even in the better homes of Oliver’s benefactors.
Image Entertainment’s DVD presentation is a very acceptable one. Certainly the image is in rough shape with numerous scratches and blemishes and occasional evidence of negative decomposition, but the contrast levels are quite good. The film’s tinting which was used very effectively throughout is well rendered on the DVD. The image has been window-boxed to ensure a presentation uncompromised by video overscan. The organ score accompanying the film sounds quite pleasing.
Added to the disc is the 33-minute long The Light of Faith. This is an abridged version of the 1922 film The Light in the Dark. The abridgement was prepared in the mid-1920s by a Rhode Island film distributor that acquired the title as part of a series of religious subjects, which it then distributed to churches and schools. Since those markets required by law that their prints be struck on non-flammable safety stock, the abridged version survives today. The film again features Lon Chaney who steals a cup believed to have healing powers in order to help a sick young woman who lives in the same building as him. This time Chaney eschews make-up and mannerisms to deliver a straightforward and sympathetic portrayal. The DVD image is super — noticeably better than much of Oliver Twist — bright with good contrast. Windowboxing is once again used and the tinting of the film shows well. An enjoyable piano score accompanies The Light of Faith.
About the only thing I would quibble with is the lack of historical context presented on the disc. There is quite a lot of interesting background information available on these two films, but you’d never know it from reading the very brief summaries on the back of the disc. There’s obviously a limited market for such titles and Image is to be commended for making these sorts of DVDs available, but I really feel that an opportunity to grow that market is being missed by Image by failing to provide the interesting background facts that exist.
Image has been doing very well by silent film enthusiasts by virtue of its many and varied silent DVD releases. This recent issue of Oliver Twist is a case in point. Given the film’s age, the DVD looks and sounds very good. The inclusion of the abridged version of The Light in the Dark is a welcome addition and looks even better. Can you tell I like this film and its disc? Highly recommended.