Saturday, 28 March 2015

1909: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist
As a rule, I've been trying to select films that bring something new to the art of cinema, but this one is so far behind the curve it's in danger of being lapped. The reason I include it is that it represents the last gasp of a style of film making that in 1909 had already had its day.
Instead of telling a coherent story, it illustrates incidents from a story it assumes we know well. Also, it does this with stagey, painted backgrounds and a locked-off camera. There's no attempt at close-ups or editing or any kind of film technique at all - and this is starting to look odd because all of that had been introduced by Edwin S Porter and Cecil Hepworth six or seven years previously. Also, it displays more ham than Smithfield Market. If you don't want to watch the whole thing, just treat yourself to Nancy's death scene, starting around 11.20. The over-the-top, theatrical acting makes this a masterpiece of unintentional comedy to a modern eye - and perhaps even to a contemporary one. Bill Sikes drags Nancy through a door and out of sight while strangling her, and reappears a few seconds later, tortured with remorse. Point made, you might think, but not quite. You'll see what I mean.
It could be that the producers just wanted to get their money's worth out of Elita Proctor Otis, as she's the only performer in the picture to get a screen credit - and in the middle of the film, too.
To be fair to the director, J. Stuart Blackton, he was probably pitching to a safe market here. He was a pioneer of animation and trick photography, so no stranger to innovation. For a more fun example of his work, check out "The Thieving Hand", from 1908.