Oliver Twist (1948)

This is a start of a series of posts about Oliver Twist and it’s various adaptations (sadly, no Oliver and Co) but I need to preface with some vital information: I am only on Chapter 30 of a 53 chapter book. I don’t know the climax or where this story is heading; the most recent section I’ve read isn’t even in most adaptations.

One of the most interesting parts of this 1948 film by David Lean is the portrayal of Fagin, played by Alec Guinness. IMDB facts, which are obviously always correct, said that the film was originally banned in America because of the anti-antisemitism in the film, so I did a little research and found this article on the Turner Classic Movies website that said this about the release: When Oliver Twist was finally released in Great Britain, it didn’t receive the high acclaim that Great Expectations enjoyed. Some critics accused Lean of softening the characters of Fagin, Sikes and Bumble in comparison to their deeds and actions in the book but the main complaint came from Zionists who felt that Fagin was being presented as an exaggerated Jewish stereotype, the same charge that was leveled against Julius Streicher’s Der Stermer, a notorious Nazi propaganda film. The controversy increased when the film was submitted for a U.S. release and was denied a seal of approval from Joseph Breen’s Production Code office. Breen had strongly stressed in an earlier memo the “advisability of omitting from the portrayal of Fagin any elements or inference that would be offensive to any specific racial group or religion.” United Artists eventually released Oliver Twist in 1951 with twelve minutes of footage excised and it wasn’t until 1970 that the uncut version of Lean’s film finally aired in the U.S. in a film tribute to Lean at the Museum of Modern Art.

It took 23 years before this film was finally shown in America in its entirety. I think that’s when you know you have a problem.

I was trying to equate the portrayal of Fagin in this movie to a stereotype that would be more prevelant in current times, and the best that I could do would be a story about a radical Muslim, probably creating some terrorist plot or recruiting young boys to become suicide bombers within 3 years of 9/11. Because that’s basically what this film is doing with the Jewish stereotype 3 years after the end of the Holocaust. That’s insane. And a bold, bold move.

I can’t deny that it was necessary to keep Fagin in the story, he helps propel most of the plot, he introduces Sikes to Oliver, which creates all of the drama at the end of film after (spoiler alert) Sikes kills Nancy for talking to Mr. Brownlow. He gives Oliver a place to live after he comes to London. And Fagin provides a villain that isn’t as tame as Mr. Bumble, but isn’t as cruel as Sikes. Clearly, he is a vital piece to the plot. But did he need to be portrayed to that extreme? According to that article on TCM, Guinness showed up for his screen test in basically the same look he wears for the film, which makes my first though “holy crap, Obi Won Kenobi was an antisemitic!” And no, you can’t convince me otherwise, because that is how Guinness viewed Fagin from the book.

I guess I can say I’m mostly proud of the way America took a stand against the antisemitism in the film, is that petty of me to say? Because I really do love England with all of my heart, but they have not dealt with racial tensions and bigotry the way Americans have. They haven’t almost had their country ripped apart over it and I think that makes Americans a little more in-tuned with what can be perceived as bigotry. That being said, Song of the South was re-released in theaters about five times, so its still a work in progress.

What is done, is done. Should David Lean have thought a little more before perpetuating Jewish stereotypes that Charles Dickens included in a dated work of bigotry? Definitely, but there isn’t anything we can do about it now. The best thing is to talk about how it’s stereotypical and antisemitic, so these sentiments aren’t carried over into today’s society.

I think one of my favorite parts about this film though was that a lot of the dialogue was taken directly from the novel. It was definitely a call back to the cinematic way Dickens wrote, almost highlighting specific shots he would have wanted, had he known about motion pictures. And the dialogue used where the specific lines that told characterization and forwarded the plot. The first instance I noticed this was when Mr. Bumble was explaining how he gave Oliver his name. I loved the way it was portrayed because the lines in the novel said a lot about the character’s complete disregard for the people he oversees, but it was acted in a way that was even more dismissive of the parish workers.

Finally, one last detail I’d like to mention: I don’t know how much of an influence or a connection there is between Little Orphan Annie and Oliver Twist, or how much the British would have known about an American wartime comic strip, but I couldn’t help but draw connections between Mr. Brownlow and Daddy Warbucks. Especially at the end, when Mr. Brownlow brings Oliver home to live. My predictions might be completely off, but I just reached the moment in the novel where Oliver learns that Mr. Brownlow has moved to the West Indies… does he return to be Oliver’s savior? Or was the movie influenced by the popular culture of the day?

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