I must admit that, overall, the 1933 version of Oliver Twist is one of the weakest Dickens films I’ve seen. It is nowhere near the quality of David Lean’s famous adaptation, or even of the 1922 silent film starring Jackie Coogan which I reviewed here recently. I’m glad to have seen it, and think it has one or two powerful sequences, in particular towards the end of the film – but in general it is a disappointment, and I’m only going to write a brief review.
The film was made by a Poverty Row studio, Monogram Pictures, and does not have the production values of Dickens films made by larger studios. Its budget must have been a tiny fraction of the money spent on the great MGM films of 1935, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Despite being only around 70 minutes long and losing much of the novel’s plot, the film, directed by the little-known William J. Cowen, seems painfully slow and stilted much of the time. (It may have originally been longer, as some characters are listed who don’t actually appear in the film.)
However, the biggest problem is probably the casting of seven-year-old Dickie Moore as Oliver. Moore was fine in smaller roles, for instance as Marlene Dietrich’s little son in Blonde Venus the previous year, but portraying Oliver was clearly beyond him at this age, and he comes nowhere near the performance of Jackie Coogan in the silent version of 1922. The famous “Please sir, I want some more” scene is all but thrown away, and the court case is completely lost.
The film picks up whenever Moore is off-screen, and in particular in the scenes set in the thieves’ kitchen. Irving Pichel is good as Fagin, looking quite like Cruikshank’s illustrations, and I was also impressed by the jumpy, nervous performance of the little-known Sonny Ray as the Artful Dodger. (In this version the Dodger is a grown man rather than a child like Oliver, so, in this film’s shadowy, low-budget underworld, he and Charley Bates really do seem like precursors of 1930s gangsters.)
However, the most memorable performances are given by William ‘Stage’ Boyd as Bill Sikes and a surprisingly-cast Doris Lloyd as Nancy (who in this version also takes the surname Sikes). Boyd has an American accent, adding to the gangster film feel, while Lloyd, who was in her late 30s, looks far older and dresses like a frumpy housewife, making them seem a very strangely-matched pair. But there is a disturbing amount of chemistry between them, all mixed up with the violence of their relationship. The murder scene is particularly well done, cutting between close-ups of the two actors’ faces and looming shadows on the wall – and giving a reminder that yes, this is a pre-Code.
There is also another good scene near the end where Fagin is seen in the condemned cell, bringing to life one of Cruikshank’s most famous illustrations – a sequence often left out of adaptations. But in general most of the film is slow and often inept. In particular, the prim drawing-room scenes with Mr Brownlow and Rose Maylie (in this version his niece) are hard to sit through. One point of interest here is that Barbara Kent, who plays Rose, lived to 103 and only died last year.
This film has fallen into the public domain and so most prints around the internet are in a poor state, though the one I saw at Archive.org was perfectly watchable.