Greetings, ladies and gentlemen! Today is the second day of The 4th Annual Great Breening Blogathon! This is our yearly celebration of Joseph I. Breen’s birthday here at PEPS. During this blogathon, we invite other writers to try their hand at breening, the process of self-regulating un-Code films which we do in our regular Breening Thursday articles. Although this is a common practice for us, Rebekah and I are writing special breening articles for this blogathon. I decided to breen a British film, a category of un-Code films in which I have breened few movies.
Today’s topic is Oliver Twist from 1948. Surprisingly, this famous Charles Dickens tale was not made into a movie during the American Breen Era (1934-1954). It was a pre-Code film and a Shurlock Era film, but Hollywood didn’t adapt the iconic story during the later 1930s, 40s, or 50s. It’s a shame, since Freddie Bartholomew would have been perfect as the titular forlorn orphan. A film of this story was made in 1948, during the Breen Era, but it was a British production and thus not a Code film. Don’t let the MPAA Seal of Approval in the opening credits deceive you. Although this film, like most British productions, was granted a Seal of Approval for American distribution, it was not self-regulated by the Production Code Administration (PCA) throughout its filming and thus is not a Code film.
If you know the story of Oliver Twist, the plot should be familiar to you. An orphan boy (John Howard Davies) born in a workhouse lives there until nine years old. When he draws the lot requiring him to ask for more gruel, he is sold to an undertaker. After getting into a fight with the undertaker’s assistant and wife after being taunted about his mother, he run away. He ends up in London, where he becomes part of a gang of pickpockets. Little does Oliver know that his background is far more noble than one would ever expect of a boy born to an unwed mother in a workhouse. With no further ado, let the breening begin!
Outside the workhouse, we see the parish beadle, Mr. Bumble (Francis L. Sullivan), talking with Mr. Sowerberry (Gibb McLaughlin), the undertaker. He tries to convince him to take Oliver, since they are trying to sell him after the gruel incident. Mr. Sowerberry offers his coffin-shaped snuffbox to Mr. Bumble, and both men are seen putting large quantities of the stuff in their nostrils. Although the depiction of this habit was not expressly forbidden in Code films, I have noticed that it was never shown in great focus. This is in poor taste. Firstly, the snuffbox should not be shaped like a coffin. Secondly, the two men shouldn’t be shown so clearly taking snuff.
Back at the workhouse, two old women bring Mrs. Corney (Mary Clare) to the dying Mrs. Thingummy (Deirdre Doyle), the old woman who attended Oliver’s mother the night he was born. As the two women sit by the fire, trying to warm themselves, one woman takes out a snuffbox. Both she and her companion inhale the stuff. Considering that many Americans found the depiction of women smoking in film to be offensive, female snuff-taking would likely be particularly distasteful to many. The women shouldn’t take snuff.
Suddenly, a shadow is visible on the wall of the dark room where the three women wait for Mrs. Thingummy to revive. The camera turns toward the bed, where Mrs. Thingummy is now sitting up, stretching her arms up. The above picture doesn’t capture how genuinely terrifying this moment is. First, the shadow looks like the Grim Reaper coming to take her spirit. Then, the poor, haggard old woman looks like a zombie as she sits up in bed like that, looking more dead than alive. Instead of using the shadow and the zombie-like sitting up in bed, she should simply moan a little to alert the other women to her consciousness.
Mr. Sowerberry has a young female assistant named Charlotte (Diana Dors). This maid wears a very sloppy and indecent costume. Her blouse is baggy and leaves her ample chest unsupported; it also is low-cut. In addition, she looks like she is wearing a corset outside her blouse. This costume needs revision. Although she is a sloppy girl, her blouse needs revisions, and she mustn’t wear the corset on the outside, since this makes her seem too loose.
Oliver is so enraged by Noah’s insults about his mother that he violently attacks him. Hearing the commotion, Charlotte and Mrs. Sowerberry (Kathleen Harrison) rush down the steps and join the fight, trying to rescue Noah from the surprisingly vicious Oliver. The fight which ensues between the four is very violent, what with the people brutally striking and pounding each other in the face and on the body. This is especially surprising and distasteful because two of the fighters are women and one is a little boy. In the original novel, Oliver was described as first shaking Noah and then pushing him down, rather than beginning by slapping him in the face. I suggest that something that this could be utilized in this scene. This fight should not be as violent nor as long, and less focus should be placed on the actual blows.
After the fight, everyone seems to be relatively unharmed except Noah, who received the brunt of Oliver’s attacks. Although he looked unscathed the last time we saw him trying to fend off Oliver, his nose and mouth are bleeding profusely when he sits up from behind the cabinet where he was hiding. I haven’t seen this much blood suddenly issue after a fight since I breened The River (1984), although its hard to believe that a little orphan boy could be as brutal as factory strikers. Although one might think that the redness of blood in color would be more distasteful, the blackness of blood in black-and-white almost looks worse. Noah could be bruised and battered, but he shouldn’t have such blatant blood on his face. The book refers only to his having a black eye, so that could be his injury in the film.
After Oliver becomes part of a pickpocket gang in London, led by Fagin (Alec Guinness), he is sent along with two experienced boys to watch them thieve. When the crime is spotted, Oliver is mistaken for the pickpocket, so a mob chases him through the streets. Oliver runs for his life as the two real pickpockets join the gang of pursuers to protect themselves. His flight is finally stopped by a random man who punches him in the face. This is very violent. Instead, the man should trip him, either with his cane or his foot, causing the boy to fall and be knocked unconscious. Then, Oliver would not have blood on his chin when he regained consciousness, which is a bit gory.
In the next scene, we meet Nancy (Kay Walsh), the only female in the gang in this version of the story. Although this character is often considered a woman of the oldest profession, I was very pleased by the delicacy exercised with her characterization. As in Dickens’s original novel, there was no direct reference to or implication of her being in “the sporting life.” She seems to merely be a female thief and Bill Sykes’s (Robert Newton) girlfriend. However, the neckline of her first costume is too low, making her character more likely to be interpreted as a member of the oldest profession. This neckline needs to be raised to a proper level.
Back at the workhouse, the widow Corney is now Mrs. Bumble, yet their marriage doesn’t seem very happy. When Mrs. Bumble sees her husband sulking in a chair, she starts nagging him about “sitting there snoring all day.” When he replies that it is his male prerogative to sit there as he pleases and to command her while she obeys, she gets very upset. He replies that if her late husband had taught her that he might still be alive. She begins sobbing and calling him a brute, but Mr. Bumble proceeds toward the door, obviously unaffected by her crying. The harsh woman is clearly faking, since the next moment she hurls a cabbage at his head. Then, she rushes over and slaps him in the face before beating his head and shoulders with an umbrella. Then, she slaps him again before ordering him from the house. It seems that, despite Mr. Bumble’s statements about his “prerogative,” he allows his new wife to bully him. This unprovoked outburst of violence from the wife is disturbingly brutal. For her to slap and beat him for no good reason is very unsettling and unacceptably violent. Instead, she could just throw a cabbage at his head and cry, “Well, go on, get out of here, you brute!”
Obviously upset about having been beaten in a fight by his shrewish wife, Mr. Bumble takes out his frustration on an innocent orphan boy who opens the gate for him by boxing his ear for no reason. This act of child cruelty is superfluous and unnecessarily violent. This action should be removed.
Nancy’s second dress, which she wears when she and Bill capture Oliver from the street after he has been taken to live with kind old Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), has a low neckline also. As you can see in the above picture, it is more noticeably indecent in some shots than others. It should be raised so that it is decent at all times.
Oliver dashes out of Fagin’s lair, yelling for help. Nancy suddenly seems tp regret having helped bring Oliver back to this life of crime, so she stands in front of the door, holding it closed. Bill comes over and tries to yank her out of the way as his dog squeals wildly to get out. As he pulls at her, he growls, “You stand off of me, or I’ll split your head in!” “I don’t care!” she screams, hitting his arm and scratching at him. He finally pulls her away and tosses her on the floor. This whole scene is very violent, especially Bill’s mentioned line. Bill’s line should be changed to, “Or I’ll let you have it!” Also, the struggle between Nancy and Bill should be shortened. Bill should briefly try to tug Nancy away from the door as they say their lines. Then, instead of Nancy being thrown across the room, Fagin should accidentally break up the fight by pushing the door open, having caught Oliver. Also, Nancy’s disturbingly hysterical screaming while she says most of her lines during this exchanged should be replaced with a less screechy tone of voice.
Later in this scene, Nancy berates Fagin for turning Oliver into a thief, just as he did her when she was half his age. When Fagin replies that it is her living, she replies, “Aye, it is my living. And the cold, wet, dirty streets are my home.” The first part of the line is acceptable. However, her statement that her home is the streets implies that she is a woman of the streets, an implication we are trying to avoid. Thus, he line should be reworded as, “It is my living, on the cold, wet, dirty streets.” This would be acceptable, since it would sound like she were only stealing on the streets, not selling herself.
As Nancy angrily recounts her own decline into crime, she flies into a rage and begins attacking Fagin, screaming “Day and night!” This scene, complete with her hysterical shrieking and pounding against Fagin, is very unsettling. This effect is heightened by the invasive filming, which puts the audience in Fagin’s dangerous position as Nancy flies at him and then collapses in a faint on the floor. This attack should be lessened to Nancy merely rushing over and grabbing Fagin’s arms to shake him before Bill pulls her away, sobbing and exhausted with emotion instead of fainting. Also, it should be shot from a distance.
Later, we see Bill and Nancy in a tavern. In this scene, she also wears a dress with a low neckline. This may be the dress she wore when we first saw her, since it does look similar, but it could be a new one. Either way, she must be wearing a dress with a decent neckline in this scene.
One of the most difficult parts of this story is the inevitable murder of Nancy. Since I am familiar with the musical, I was surprised to learn the original site of the murder was an apartment instead of London Bridge. This scene opens with an enraged Bill, who has just found out about Nancy telling Mr. Brownlow about Oliver’s whereabouts, barging into a darkened apartment. He pulls back a curtain, revealing Nancy asleep in bed, and growls, “Get up.” She opens her eyes sleepily and says, “It’s you, Bill.” He menacingly replies, “It is. Get up!” Her comfortableness with Bill barging into her room implies that they are living together, which is not obvious in this adaption, as it is in others. Instead of calmly saying, “It’s you, Bill,” Nancy should look more surprised and upset at having been startled awake by Bill, saying, “Bill? What are you doing here?” Bill would not answer that question but instead repeat, “Get up!”
Bill proceeds to drag Nancy out of bed. While she screams her innocence and pleads for her life, he strikes her and knocks her down. Then, as she struggles to her feet, he hits her with a club. The camera then focuses on his dog, who scratches at the door in a frantic attempt to escape the violent scene. Nancy’s cries are drowned out by the dog’s horrific squeals. This murder is very violent and disturbing. The actual murder need not be shown onscreen. The scene could end much earlier. When Nancy is still in bed, she tries to light a candle, but Bill knocks it over, saying, “There’s light enough for what I’ve got to do.” Cowering, Nancy asks, “Why are you looking at me like that?” The camera could then focus on her terrified face as Bill’s shadow passes over her. Then, the scene could fade out, leaving us to understand what happens.
The next morning, Bill is still in the apartment, obviously spooked by the company of Nancy’s corpse on the floor. He nervously tosses a blanket over her dead body, the face of which is thankfully hidden behind a chair. His dog is terrified of him. He looks around the room, seeing Nancy’s lifeless arm, toilette items on the table, and the bed with two imprinted pillows, which they obviously shared. Then, he is haunted by visions of Nancy, telling him that she was innocent and Fagin deceived him. He imagines killing Fagin instead of Nancy. He finally leaves the room in horror. This scene is very disturbing and creepy. It also reinforces the implication that Bill and Nancy lived together. This whole scene should be eliminated. Instead, the next scene should be when we see the bustling street. We should not be certain that Nancy is dead until the next scene, when the Artful Dodger (Anthony Newley) goes to the apartment and discovers her body.
That concludes the surface problems in this film. There is only one serious core problem, the offensive Jewish caricature of Fagin as Jewish. Complete with a scraggly beard, long hair, a thick accent, and an outlandishly large prosthetic nose, the Gentile Alec Guinness is unmistakably characterized as a Jewish stereotype in this role. This character is one who has long brought Charles Dickens accusations of anti-Semitism, since he frequently referred to this old crook as “the Jew” in the book. However, after being criticized for bigotry, he apologized half-way through the serialization of the book and ceased referring to him by his nationality after that. If repeatedly calling a character a Jew was offensive in 1831, thoroughly characterizing him thus certainly would be offensive over one hundred years later! This was in particularly poor taste in the late 1940s, when the Holocaust had just ended.
When the British filmmakers submitted the idea for the production to the PCA in 1947, soliciting their likelihood of receiving a Seal of Approval, the
PCA cautioned them, “We assume, of course, that you will bear in mind the advisability of omitting from the portrayal of Fagin any elements of inferences that would be offensive to any specific racial group or religion. Otherwise, of course, your picture might meet with definite audience resistance in this country.” However, PCA warnings were not law for British productions, so they proceeded to base Alec Guinness’s appearance in this part on George Cruickshank’s illustrations of Fagin in the novel’s first edition. I must admit two things. Firstly, the 1948 Fagin looks exceptionally like the original illustrations. Secondly, Alec Guinness looks very realistic in this disguise. However, that does not eliminate the offensiveness of this character.
The PCA’s warnings were not in vain. They denied Oliver Twist a Seal of Approval for American distribution because of Fagin’s stereotype. It also faced bans and boycotts in other countries around the world. In 1951, when a different company wanted to distribute the film in the United States, the PCA, in conjunction with the New York office, reviewed the film again. The film was finally issued a Seal of Approval, but only after significant cuts were made to eliminate the shots which focused on or emphasized Fagin’s grotesque appearance. The cuts shortened the film by eleven minutes. Even after the cuts, many Jewish-American theater owners refused to book the film.
Having defined this core problem, what is to be done about it? Obviously, Fagin must be a “character” rather than a caricature. There is nothing wrong with the character being implied to be Jewish, just as long as he isn’t an offensively exaggerated stereotype against the Jews, which was disturbingly reminiscent of Third Reich anti-Semitic propaganda. In the 1968 film version of this story, Fagin does not seem like an offensive Jewish stereotype because he was played by Ron Moody, who actually was Jewish. His authentically Semitic features are unenhanced by over-sized prostethetics, and his accent is subtle. One option would have been to recast the part with an actor who was actually Jewish. If Alec Guinness had been kept in the role, as I hope the excellent actor could, he should just have performed it without the offensive false nose. The additional makeup to age and grizzle him could have been used, and he could have also worn a scraggly beard and wig. Also, he should have toned down his accent. If this had been done, he wouldn’t have had to be replaced, which would be a shame, since he is excellent in the part.
The battle over this film reveals something very valuable about the PCA. It shows that the PCA and its enforcer, Joseph I. Breen, were not only unbigoted toward Jews but were very concerned about films which would be offensive to their Semitic brethren. Mr. Breen very aptly said of this film, “It seems to me that this fine picture could have been made in such a way as to escape the very clear offensiveness which is inherent in the portrayal of the character of Fagin.” Unfortunately, many people will probably remember having heard something about Mr. Breen himself being anti-Semitic. This is a vicious rumor which has been circulating for years, chiefly spread by modern film historians who hate the Code and the moral guidelines it represents. This incident shows that Joseph Breen fought for fair, dignified representation of all races in his Code enforcement.
That concludes my breening of this film! This is an excellent and very faithful adaption of Charles Dickens’s famous novels, one of the most iconic and frequently adapted stories of all time. It is remarkable that, with all the film adaptions that have been made, no American filmmaker thought to make this story during the Breen Era. Maybe this is because the largely Jewish Hollywood filmmakers were too offended by the Fagin character to want to adapt the story. I hope that this article shows how this movie could have been a Code film. It would have been no less impacting and dramatic, but it wouldn’t have been as violent, suggestive, disturbing and offensive. Thus, it could have been enjoyed by people of all ages, nationalities, and backgrounds, which is the object of any Code film!
Happy Birthday, Mr. Breen!
Please join our two other upcoming blogathons!
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!