After watching Frank Lloyd’s early silent feature A Tale of Two Cities (1917), I couldn’t resist taking a look at the second Dickens silent he directed five years later. This one is much better-known, because it has a more famous cast, headed by Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin – and it is also available on DVD (it is the centrepiece of the BFI’s region 2 DVD Dickens Before Sound, and I believe there are other releases too) as well as online. Here’s a link to a Youtube version for anyone who would like to watch it online, but, be warned, the musical soundtrack for this version is extremely repetitive! I’m puzzled by the poster shown left which mentions a song, but I suppose there must have been one played at the original showings.
I enjoyed the film a lot, although, at 74 minutes, it is obviously too short really to do justice to an enormous novel. This is very much a vehicle for Coogan, then aged just eight, who was riding high after his great role in Chaplin’s The Kid the previous year. As such, it is rather sweeter and slighter than Dickens’s novel, with more charm and less violence than most versions. There is one scene where a cruel carriage driver goads Oliver to chase his vehicle on foot by waving a halfpenny at him, which in the end the exhausted youngster never gets – but Coogan lightens the mood by turning graceful cartwheels as he runs. In another sequence, he runs away and lands up in the middle of a Punch and Judy show, and he also has an irresistible scene where he mimics his benefactor, Mr Brownlow (Lionel Belmore), by putting on a coat and swaggering around with a walking stick.Even in the famous ‘Please Sir, I want some more’ scene, little Jackie adds a sweet touch by mischievously reaching out to snatch a couple of tastes of extra gruel from the ladle of an indignant orphanage official. At times in these comic scenes I was reminded of Mary Pickford’s starring role in Daddy-Long-Legs (1919), another orphanage tale where the emphasis is on humour.
‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ Lon Chaney looks uncannily like Cruikshank’s illustrations of Fagin, and is as good as you’d expect, with one particularly creepy scene where he persuades Sikes to commit murder by hints, smarming up to him as he says “Don’t be too violent, Bill’. But he just doesn’t get enough screen time, and there is only a very brief glimpse of Fagin in the condemned cell (Cruikshank’s most unforgettable illustration), making me wonder if some footage was lost, or censored, here. I was interested to note that, although Chaney does have a fake nose, there is no mention of the character being Jewish in the intertitles. Most of Fagin’s gang have little screen time, including Edouard Trebaol as the Artful Dodger, who makes a great entrance but doesn’t really follow it up.
George Siegmann is good and menacing as Sikes, while Gladys Brockwell must be one of the best actresses I’ve seen playing Nancy, making the character lively and vivacious and yet giving her an air of wistfulness at the same time. Both these actors died young, in the late 1920s, and so never had a chance to make it in the talkies – but their talent is unmistakable. Unfortunately, though, as with Chaney, they don’t get as much time in front of the camera as they should. I was quite surprised when, just eight minutes from the end of the film, the murder still hadn’t happened – the outbreak of violence is powerful when it finally does take place, as is the hunt for Sikes, but it all happens in something of a rush.
I was interested to see that Esther Ralston has a small part as Rose Maylie – she later worked with Lloyd again in Children of Divorce (1927), a silent melodrama which was reworked by Josef von Sternberg, and was a big star for a while in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Thanks to everyone who is following my Dickens in December series – and, if you would like full information on silent Dickens movies, check out this great and detailed posting at the Bioscope blog.