Oliver Twist (1948): David Lean’s Controversial Version of Dickens, Starring Alec Guinness

As a follow-up to David Lean’s great, Oscar-winning version of Dickens’ Great Expectations, Oliver Twist is as solid a movie, brilliantly crafted and extremely well acted.

Oliver Twist
Oliver Twist1948.movieposter.jpg

Theatrical release poster

Reteaming for the second time with Alec Guinness (who became one of his most prevalent, if also problematic, actors), Lean cast him as Fagin and surrounded him with a top-notch ensemble that includes Robert Newton as Bill Sikes, Kay Walsh as Nancy, and John Howard Davies in the title role.

Our Grade: A- (****1/2 out of *****)

As I will analyze later in this review, Lean and Guinness’ interpretation of Fagin was perceived by some as anti-Semitic, perpetuating negative stereotypes.  As a result, at least 6 or 7 minutes had to be cut out before it was released in the U.S. three full years (in 1951) after it had been made and played in the U.K.

For some critics, the movie still bears out the charges of caricature and stereotype, which, interestingly, were considered reasonable or even acceptable for British but not American society.

Seen from a more detached perspective, “Oliver Twist” is quite impressive. David Lean and his reliable crew have faithfully recreated the unique period atmosphere and Dickens’ gallery of characters, some of which quite grotesque. Showing his masterly touch as a storyteller, Lean succeeds in getting the viewers emotionally involved with Oliver and his adventurous saga, resulting in a sprawling film that has strong literary and entertainment values.

For dramatic effects and brevity of presentation (the feature’s running time is only 106 minutes, one of Lean’s shortest pictures), some of the characters are omitted, while others compressed, which didn’t please Dickens’ purists. Even so, of the three or four “Oliver Twist” films I have seen, this is the most beautifully mounted and acted and also the most technically accomplished.

Controversial Picture

There were concerns by Jewish as well as non-Jewish execs over the issue of the stereotypical representation of Fagin. Rank was a deeply religious man and, persuaded of the problems, he didnt press for a US release. But pressures to reach a compromise with the PCA came from the distributor, Eagle-Lion, aware of the size of the American movie market.

According to scholar Sarah Street in her informative book, “Transatlantic Crossings: British Feature Films in the U.S.,” in May 1947, censorship head Joseph Breen commented on a draft of the script, indicating his concerns with the explicit language, the imagery of young boys drinking liquor, sexually revealing costumes, and screen brutality. Breen wrote: Bear in mind the advisability of omitting from the portrayal of Fagin any elements or inferences that would be offensive to any specific racial group or religion. Otherwise, your picture will meet with very definite audiences resistance in this country.

After a private screening for the Anti-Defamation League of BNai Brith, Fagins portrayal by Alec Guinness was deemed a grotesque Jewish caricature stereotype.” Aware of this reaction, Breen assured the PCA office that Rank had no intention of releasing the film in the U.S. as is. However, after Eagle-Lion had purchased the distribution rights, “Oliver Twist” was again submitted to Breen in 1950, two years after it was made.

Unfazed by the time lapse, Breen wrote to Jack Lawrence that the film was unacceptable due to unfair representation of Jewry. The press, having learned of the controversy and smelling a good story, wanted more details. Against Ranks wishes, Eagle-Lion re-appealed against the PCAs refusal to give the film seal of approval. Per Street, it was the first time that a distributor had appealed without the producers consent. Rank even offered to reimburse Eagle-Lion for their expenses in preparing the film for distribution, but the distributors remained adamant, determined to release their picture.

In January 1951, “Oliver Twist was viewed by representatives of he National Conference of Christians and Jews. Their verdict was that the film would not arouse anti-Semitism, because the make-up of Guinness presents a Fagin so far removed from twentieth-century American Jews in appearance and in occupation that, “We see no likelihood of a widespread transfer in the minds of American audiences to their Jewish neighbors.”

Breen then suggested a substantial number of 69 cuts, or 749 feet, to eliminate wherever possible the photography of the character of Fagin. ” he held that his strategy doesn’t “damage the film, clarity of plot or dramatic continuity.” Eagle-Lion agreed to the cuts, and the revised version satisfied Breen. “Oliver Twist” was finally granted a certificate in February of 1951

Cast

Bill Sikes (Robert Newton)
Fagin (Alec Guinness)
Nancy (Kay Walsh)
Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan)
Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson)
Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare)
Oliver Tiwst (John Howard Davies)
Oliver’s Mother (Josephine Stewart)
Police Official (Henry Edwards)
Monks (Ralph Truman)

Credits:

Produced by Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan.
Directed by David Lean
Screenplay: David Lean and Stanley Hayes, based on the 1837 novel by Charles Dickens
Camera; Guy Green
Editing: Jack Harris
Music: Arnold Bax
Costume Design: Margaret Furse

Production company: Cineguild

Distributed by General Film Distributors (UK)l Eagle-Lion, United Artists (USA, 1951)

Release date: June 24, 1948 (London)

Running time: 116 minutes (UK)