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.)
Just when I was starting to think that every William Wellman pre-Code was a masterpiece, I came across one that I don’t like quite so much. For me the uneasy blend of comedy and melodrama in The Star Witness, starring Walter Huston, doesn’t quite work, although I still found it interesting to watch. I think it’s a pity it wasn’t included as an extra feature on the DVD of The Public Enemy, since they are so closely linked and even both feature shootings amid Wellman’s favourite cinematic weather, torrential rain! It looks from the article on this film at the TCM website as if this is being shown on TCM in the US at 9am on April 6 – it gives this date and time at the top of the article, anyway.
For me the big problem with The Star Witness is that the actor playing the loveable, curmudgeonly grandfather, Charles “Chic” Sale, seems rather hammy and over the top. This isn’t surprising, since he started out as a vaudeville/comedy star and was much-loved – I’m sure he was giving his fans what they wanted, and also that Wellman included him deliberately to give some light relief to an often grim story – but I must say I find him hard to watch. Sale was only in his 40s when the film was made, but plays an American Civil War veteran, presumably in his late 80s.
After thoroughly enjoying William Wellman’s pre-Code comedy-drama The Purchase Price, I was delighted to get the chance to watch So Big!, another film he made the same year, just a couple of months earlier, also starring Barbara Stanwyck as a farmer’s wife. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edna Ferber, this is an even bleaker portrayal of rural life than the one given in The Purchase Price, portraying a back-breaking existence which makes the people living on farms old and exhausted before their time – although there is still a lot of humour mixed up with the melodramatic elements. This book was filmed three times, first as a silent with Colleen Moore and then again in the 1950s starring Jane Wyman, but this middle version is the only one I’ve seen.
I enjoyed this film, but, at just 81 minutes, it is very short for the large span of time it tries to cover, and there are some abrupt jumps. It looks from the list of characters at the imdb, which includes several who are not in the finished film, as if some of the story must have been deleted – I’d love to see the sections which were cut out before release and find out if they would have made the film flow any better.
Stanwyck has a luminous, indomitable quality in this film, just as she does in The Purchase Price and the other films she made with Wellman – he seemed to like casting her as someone who can’t be defeated, however dire her situation might seem, but carries on working tirelessly and hoping against hope. She also has another self-sacrificing role in this film, as in The Great Man’s Lady, a later film she made with Wellman, which I hope to write about here soon (I have a terrible backlog of films I’ve watched but haven’t written about!)