Tuesday, August 3, 2010
Oliver Twist (1922)
Oliver Twist is well shot and well paced; the work of a director confident in his art, his cast, and his source material; a model, really, for adapting great work without being enslaved by its reputation. The orphan’s hardships are all here, but condensed. Intertitles are rare, despite the temptations of Dickensian prose. What balls that takes, when you think about it. If the movie were a person, I’d shake its hand and commend its professionalism: "Job well done, ’Twist. Wish we had more like you. Wish 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) had your combination of talent and commitment. Those two—they looked good on paper, but they tried too hard, ’Twist. No one’s gonna tell you this but, sometimes, it’s best to forget where you came from."
Now, it helps when your leads are two of the silent era’s most memorable talents. Playing Oliver we have Jackie Coogan: media sensation at age 8; destined to inspire a major piece of child-actor legislation later in life, and later still, to brighten lightbulbs as TV’s Uncle Fester. Coogan could have gotten by on being cute, but he doesn’t here. Nor is he an old-time child star so innocent of his mannered acting that he endears by default. Such performers still exist (especially in pop music), and they’re never in control. Coogan, as Oliver Twist, controls us.
He does it with his face, a perfect pale apple under a tossle-top of dark hair, a naturalistic instrument of expression. With it he grants us emotions as far-flung as comic hesitation, greed and fear; rarely with so much as a gesture overstating his point. It helps that director Frank Lloyd gives Coogan plenty of close-ups, but few actors could have done so much with them—and in turn, propel a film forward that might otherwise have seemed too thin. Like Garbo (lust), and Pickford (tenacity), Coogan embodied a thing; in his case, tragedy. Specifically, the kind of tragedy that befalls innocents, which we all agree is undeserved, cruel and unfair; uniting us in our sympathy even before Coogan’s forlorn eyes magnetize us and tell us all the story we really need.
The orphan’s worth saving; we know it. He has his moments of foolishness: cartwheeling after a speeding carriage on the road to London, for example; being chased into the middle of a Punch and Judy show and being throttled, slapstick-style, in place of the puppets. But his grief’s so pure we can taste it; it just flows from the boy’s face when he asks the gigantic, pancake-faced Mr. Bumble (James Marcus) for a little more to eat. Coogan’s innate gravity allows the film great moments of farce—he’s often part of them—and the source material never feels molested.
The film’s other still-noteworthy cast-member is Lon Chaney—he of the thousand faces, whose roles as a Hunchback and Phantom are described elsewhere on this blog. Chaney plays Fagin, the infamous master and trainer of boy-pickpockets. He’s unrecognizable in his makeup, but that’s always the case when he wears it—in visual terms, Fagin is one of his less interesting works of art: a crouching, bearded and capped Shylock figure, likely a more grotesque version of some vaudeville archetype leaned upon for years. But Chaney’s hands make this Fagin special. He’s always touching someone’s chest it seems, or fluttering his fingers in the air as he talks to someone, as though he were playing an instrument. He almost crawls up burly Bill Sikes’ frame as he colludes with the killer—you wonder how Sikes (George Siegmann) could or would stand the smaller man’s presence, but he does. You keep on wondering, and watching. Cuts to the source text maximize Fagin’s time on-screen, and the movie is better for it.
This review’s more about two performances than the movie itself. I know, I know. But here’s the deal: you can read the book. If you went to my high school, you already did. Some of that book is missing here, but what remains is enhanced by silent moments both subtle and broad, brought to you primarily by a little boy and a man in a load of makeup—each at his peak, and supremely talented. Read the book, then watch this flick. Enjoy them both. Eat them up.
Where to find Oliver Twist:
Oliver Twist is available on DVD from Image Entertainment. The disc also includes a bizarre, 30-minute Lon Chaney short called The Light of Faith, cut down from the feature-length The Light in the Dark (1922)—a film I’ll definitely write about one day if it shows up on video.