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The best argument against the arbitrary banning of films by pressure groups and evil authorities is now in Boston. It is the movie "Oliver Twist," at the Metropolitan. You may have read that this movie was kept out of motion picture theatres in America for more than two years because of the protests of Jewish groups against the character Fagin. Now it is evident that there is little in the film likely to stir up bigotry of any kind.
The important fact is that "Oliver Twist" is a truly magnificent motion picture. It has captured the spirit of Dickens' novel with amazing fidelity and preciseness of detail; but above that achievement it stands as a work of art in its own right. Adapting a novel to the screen is not simple task. Yet when you see "Oliver Twist" you will find it hard to believe that its original form was not the motion picture. You will find it hard to believe that the part of Bill Sikes was not undertaker's establishment at which Oliver is set to work ever existed as other than a set in the J. Arthur Rank studio. The movie departs from the original in many ways, as far as the plot is concerned. It is condensed, of course, and reshaped. But not once does it depart from the spirit in which Dickens wrote the novel.
Most of the credit for the almost startling success of the film goes to director David Loan and his cast. "Oliver Twist" contains far better character acting than American audiences are accustomed to seeing. One reason for this high standard set by even the bit players is the Old Vie experience of many of them. John Howard Davies, as "the boy who asked for more," is far, far removed from our Dean Stock-wells. The difference is that he is an actor, not merely a cute but insipid child. Davies' performance is beautifully modulated to show Oliver's timid yet occasionally bold nature.
Dickens did not create all of his characters with the depth he gave Oliver, and from this may have arson the protests about Fagin is a caricature, admittedly; but it is a caricature of a type of person, not (as those who would ban the movie have assumed) a race. Also Guinness plays Fagin in the only way the old crook can be played--with exaggeration, as an amusing old man of guile and evil. Guinness never leaves this interpretation. His acting is not a triumph of subtle shading, but it is wonderfully lucid.
Bill Sikes is more an outright blackguard than Fagin, and this exactly how Robert Newton portrays him. The top-hatted, unshaven bully terrifies Fagin's crew of pickpurses; he terrifies his lover, Nancy; and the chances are that he will terrify you in the climatic scene. Kay Walsh, an extremely lovely and disheveled creature in this film, plays Nancy with lustiness and compassion. Miss Walsh, with her face streaked, her hair flying, and her dress torn, retains a beauty that might even surprise and delight Charles Dickens.
Mr. Bumble, the Artful Dodger, and all the rest rush through dank London cellars and across creaking rooftops. It is the half-world of thieves and prostitutes, not very clean, but certainly very fascinating. And yet we always know that wrong will be righted and virtue rewarded. It isn't life, or the world as we know it, but produces the same comfortable felling as reading Dickens' novel.
This is the world that J. Arthur Rank has put down in celluloid for us, and we would be losing far more than we would gain by suppressing it. Those who wanted to prevent Fagin from appearing on the American screen should go see him as he instructs his band of youthful thieves in the art of cutting purses. They might not find the old man so bad after all.
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