Tuesday, April 1, 2014



Miguel pulled the motor home into the porte-cochere of Chateau Maine late last night, my commitments to the American Dairy Council and their What A Friend We Have In Cheeses ad campaign are at an end for the near future. There is some talk of additional shooting in the Pacific Northwest next month sometime but I want to see some rough assemblages of the dailies before I fully commit to anything else quite so strenuous as this last location shoot. I bid Miguel and my home on wheels a fond good-bye until the next time I need a location dressing room/hotel suite and he returned back to his headquarters at "Celebrity Hacks - Drivers To The Stars".

I awoke this morning, amazingly refreshed and immediately called a meeting of the production team for my new kabuki stage musical extravaganza, Bridget Over Troubled Waters a modern interpretation of the film The Last Seduction. Barry Manilow has nearly completed book, music and lyrics, all in charming little rhymed haiku. Joseph reported that Corey Feldman and Corey Haim are locked into iron clad appearance contracts for the male leads. Madame Rose has put together a brilliant publicity campaign featuring the words "Lester" and "Kabuki" in large type all over the centerfold of USA Today's entertainment section. That should raise public interest. Even Wakefield Poole, our choreographer, seems to have worked out the kinks in the Taliban dream ballet that's to be a highlight of Act II. He now has the chorus boys, playing the muhajadin, occupying one of the stage left boxes and lobbing smoke grenades at the audience. It will be so exciting.

I was so elated after the meeting that I had to put a stellar musical comedy into the home theater system. My choice was Sir Carol Reed's 1968 film version of Lionel Bart's Oliver! with Ron Moody, Shani Wallis and Oliver Reed. This film has always been near and dear to my heart, even if I did lose the part of Mrs. Bumble to an actress no one has heard of since. I got the last laugh. They cut her song, "I Shall Scream".

For those who are not followers of the stage and cinema musical, Oliver! is an adaptation of Charles Dicken's celebrated novel, Oliver Twist, written to expose some of the appalling conditions in which children of the lower classes were reared in mid-Victorian London. The titular hero, young Oliver (Mark Lester), is born to an unwed mother in a provincial workhouse where the orphans and unwanted are worked on minimal sustenance under the eye of the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble (Harry Secombe). One day, Oliver has the temerity to ask for more food, leading to his banishment from the workhouse. After an intervening stop at the undertaker Soweberry's (Leonard Rossiter), Oliver makes his way to London where he happens upon Jack Dawkins, a young pickpocket better known as the Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin (Ron Moody), a fence and his gang of juvenile pick pockets and his accomplices, the house breaker Bill Sykes (Oliver Reed) and his lady, the tavern girl Nancy (Shani Wallis). The criminal lowlifes attempt to seduce Oliver into a life of crime but, as this is a Victorian morality tale, the virtuous Oliver rebuffs them and, after a number of adventures, eventually ends up in a loving home.

The classic period of the musical play (roughly 1945-1965), was dominated by the American dramas of such teams as Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe. The British, during the same period, attempted musicals of their own but few of them could compete with the Americans in terms of depth of material, psychological insight or artistry in music and lyrics. Lionel Bart's Oliver! was one of the rare exceptions. It was a hit in the West End of London in the late 50s and was imported to Broadway with a cast that included Clive Revill and Georgia Brown for the 1960 season where it was also moderately successful. The stage version of the material pales when compared with other shows of the period (such as GypsyWest Side Story or My Fair Lady). The book is weak, the characters underdeveloped and there is a fair amount of extraneous material. When the time came to film the show, Columbia Pictures was smart enough to turn to one of the best of the mid-century British film directors, Sir Carol Reed.

Carol Reed, along with screenwriter Vernon Harris and choreographer Onna White reshaped the material for the film. Several songs were deleted to tighten the material. The story was opened out to take full advantage of the bigger resources of film making and certain passages were reworked to give the characters more emotional stake in the outcomes of events. The result was a minor masterpiece that walked off with many of the major Oscars for the year including best picture and best director. Some have quibbled with the making of Fagin into a comic figure rather than a villain, the downplaying of Nancy's prostitute realities or the turning of Fagin's boys into a juvenile song and dance team but the end result is a remarkably consistent and coherent vision of a magical Victorian London that never was. Reed was also not afraid to bring an unpleasant edge to the material. Despite its 'G' rating, there is a brutal onscreen murder, a real sense of danger in some of the situations and a truly scary and star making performance from Oliver Reed (Sir Carol's nephew)which was made stronger by having him be the only major character who does not sing (unlike the stage show - his song, My Name, however, is frequently heard as ominous underscoring).

Production Designer John Box (another Oscar winner for this film), has created a visual wonderland from the opening credits, drawn in the style of the original illustrations to Dickens, to enormous and impressive sets depicting the Covent Garden area of London, the dockside slums, and Bloomsbury Square. The screen is a whirl of color and life and character. Onna White staged two of the best large scale musical numbers ever filmed on these sets, primers on building a song and dance moment for film. Consider Yourself and Who Will Buy? are triumphs of character and comic invention, so much so that they are parodied and copied decades later. (An obvious example being the Every Sperm is Sacred number from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.)

The casting, down to the smallest parts, is impeccable. The film makers went with British stage performers who could sing and interpret the material rather than movie stars in phony accents who would need to be over dubbed. Even the kids carry conviction in their scenes. Jack Wild, in particular, walks off with every scene in which he appears.

This is a film to be savored. The DVD, a 30th anniversary edition, has a beautiful color corrected wide screen transfer. The sound is advertised as Dolby 5.1 but doesn't sound as if it has been remixed from two channel stereo. It's perfectly clear and some claim that the orchestra assembled for the recording of this film is one of the greatest collections of instrumental players ever convened.  Also on the DVD are some fun production stills and a brief 'making of' featurette from 1968 in which the colors are badly faded but is interesting for the look at the sets under construction.

Gruel. Tubby governing board. Coffin lying. Sleeping in haystacks. Dancing priests. Choreographed fish wives. Tavern sing alongs. School teacher ballet. Scarred bulldog. Gems lost in mud.

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