Oliver Twist (William J. Cowen, 1933)

Oliver Twist 1933 1I 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.)

Doris Lloyd as Nancy and Irving Pichel as Fagin

Doris Lloyd as Nancy and Irving Pichel as Fagin, with Dickie Moore as Oliver

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.)

William 'Stage' Boyd as Bill Sikes

William ‘Stage’ Boyd as Bill Sikes

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.

Oliver Twist 1933 3

5 thoughts on “Oliver Twist (William J. Cowen, 1933)

  1. Quite right Judy, I can’t agree with you more! Boyd is memorable for sure, and there are a few well-staged sequences. But Dickie Moore isn’t well-cast here, though surprisingly he was one Our Gang’s most appealing early players. As you rightly note too much of the story was cut, which in this narrative driven treasure is a fatal flaw. But for historical reasons it is of course well-worth seeing. Wonderful piece Judy!!!


    • Thank you very much, Sam – I had been hoping this might be quite good as a pre-Code adaptation, but it didn’t live up to my hopes. It’s good to know that Dickie Moore did well later on, despite his miscasting here. Thanks again!


  2. I tried to watch this movie many years ago and just couldn’t get through it. But, after reading your series on Dickens, I might give it another go if I come across it. Your series is helping me to truly appreciate the Dickens’ movies.


    • I certainly see your point in finding this one hard to get through! Thanks for the nice comment about my series, much appreciated.


  3. I have not seen this version of “Oliver Twist,” and based on this article and the comments, I doubt I will be doing so in this lifetime. However, I would like to point out that the director’s previous film was the incredible “Kongo” (1932). A remake of the Lon Chaney, Sr. film, “West of Zanzibar” (1928), “Kongo” is far more perverse and one of the most politically incorrect movies ever released by a major studio (MGM).

    I would be very interested in reading your take on it.


Comments are closed.