Oliver Twist (1909) A Silent Film Review

The American Vitagraph Company tackled one of the most famous works of Charles Dickens in this made-for-nickelodeons short adaptation. An early example of credited stage talent joining film casts.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

They wanted more…

If The Pickwick Papers established Charles Dickens as a literary superstar, his second novel, Oliver Twist, not only cemented that reputation, it contains scenes and characters so iconic that they are referenced by people who have never cracked open a Dickens book in their lives.

Not all of this is a positive (we will be discussing the legacy of Fagin in an upcoming review) but the Artful Dodger and the “Please, sir, I want some more” scene are among the most famous elements in literature and both of them make their way into this 1909 Vitagraph adaptation.

The Vitagraph film studio was eager to establish itself as a class joint in the sometimes sordid and dishonest world of early cinema. The studio went for literary adaptations, embraced Shakespeare and was among the first American concerns to dive into multi-reel presentations.

Oliver meets the charismatic child thief known as the Artful Dodger

Their adaptation of Oliver Twist is pretty typical of the period. In a time when films were regularly just one reel long (about twelve minutes, give or take), rather than going for a smooth and cohesive adaptation, filmmakers would present a “good parts” version with the most famous scenes acted out in rapid succession with only the sparest title cards to help the audience keep track of where they were. This format worked with famous novels and plays because most of the moviegoers would likely have at least a passing familiarity with the story.

I’ll be discussing all aspects of the novel, including the ending, but for those of you who are not familiar with the story, Oliver Twist is about an orphan who is tossed about by cruel winds of fate, starts out in a baby farm, moves to a workhouse, runs away and accidentally falls in with a gang of thieves, who plan to use him as a pickpocket. Meanwhile, he has an appointment with his own mysterious past and parentage. The book was socially conscious and condemned the hypocritical treatment of the impoverished. It was also jam-packed with colorful characters, including a child thief called the Artful Dodger and the criminal mastermind Fagin, who was immediately condemned as an anti-Semitic caricature.

Oliver’s mother sits under the Vitagraph logo to rest.

As the film opens, we see Oliver’s mother arrive at the poor house with her child in her arms, presumably to spare the audience seeing a visibly pregnant character. Mom dies tout suite, and we get a quick shot of the ridiculous overseer Mr. Bumble (never seen again) before Oliver asks for more gruel, runs away, meets the Artful Dodger, falls in with Fagin’s gang, nearly escapes, is pulled back in, escapes again and…

The casting of Elita Proctor Otis was a big part of the film’s advertising campaign and she plays Nancy, a member of the gang (and, it is heavily hinted, a prostitute) who helps Oliver and dies at the hands of her abusive lover, a burglar named Sykes. For the sake of propriety, the pair are married in this adaptation and the character is billed as “Nancy Sykes.”

In the novel, Nancy is a young, happy, fun-loving character who goes along with Fagin’s schemes as a lark but quickly becomes horrified at the harsh treatment of Oliver once he is in the hands of the gang. By casting Otis, well into her fifties, the dynamic of the character changes, she cannot be a naïve woman just having some fun. The film never really properly addresses this and it’s an example of the issues when adapting the stage to the screen. An older Nancy could absolutely work but the plot would need some reworking.

The film ends abruptly with Sykes making his escape after the murder of Nancy (I believe the last minute or so is lost) but things were obviously heading in a true-to-the-novel direction with death for Sykes and a happy ending for little Oliver. So, how does it hold up?

Sykes is haunted.

Well, the painted sets look pretty artificial now and they were starting to look artificial even in 1909. The acting is very much of the dramatic variety with a few standouts. There is a very nice scene near the end when Sykes sees a vision of Nancy via double exposure but generally, this picture is not groundbreaking on a technical level.

Most of the actors in the film are anonymous (more on that in a bit) but IMDB currently credits Edith Storey as Oliver and… no. Just no. Trouser roles were very common at the time and the part of Oliver very often went to young women but this Oliver is very clearly played by a tween boy and not a woman.

Oliver is on the end of the left bench and clearly displays shorn hair.

In addition to the physical shape of the pelvis usually giving them away, girls in trouser roles of this period tended to exaggerate either the swagger or the pigeon-toed timidity, you can see an example of this in Vitagraph’s own A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Gladys Hulette played Puck and in the later production of The Magic Cloak of Oz. Setting aside the body language, this Oliver has a close-cropped haircut that cannot possibly be a wig. No seventeen-year-old actress of the era would have adopted such a cut for a single one-reel production. Plus, the kid looks nothing like Storey. The end.

(Okay, a little explanation is perhaps needed. When I was growing up, an enormous number of movies for children and teens featured a “guy doing guy things is really a girl when he takes off his helmet!” plot twist and me being me, I started to study the physical tells to see if I could call out the cliché before the big reveal. I almost never missed.)

Elita Proctor Otis shows her chops.

Now, about those film credits… When movies were young, stars of the stage were more than happy to pose for the pictures and such luminaries as May Irwin, Annabelle and Annie Oakley were filmed and credited. As the novelty wore off, stage stars were less excited about being associated with the movies and studios hoped to ward off large salary demands by keeping their stars anonymous.

This couldn’t last, of course, and the stardom dam burst open in the late 1900s and early 1910s. Florence Lawrence’s jump from the anonymous Biograph Girl to the credited-by-name IMP Girl in 1910 is often cited as the start of the star system but the recent discovery of a poster advertising a 1909 Max Linder film with his name printed below the title has rewritten our perception.

Elita Proctor Otis was a stage star in her own right, playing character and supporting roles, but I do think her credit in Oliver Twist is another important piece in the stardom puzzle. “Miss Elita Proctor Otis as Nancy Sykes” may not seem like much but it was a stage personality being credited by name at a time when studios wanted to keep actors anonymous and many stage actors looked down on the screen. Other stage personalities like Hobart Bosworth were making the jump to movies but Otis certainly seems to have been ahead of the game in demanding full screen credit. Good for her!

Period magazines should be taken with a grain of salt as they often would claim firsts that had been accomplished before, sometimes several times before. However, it is significant that The Moving Picture World was abuzz with the possibility of more stage stars in motion pictures and it cited Otis’s casting in Oliver Twist as an agreeable turn of events.

Nancy kidnaps Oliver in broad daylight.

Is this credit the first? I always hesitate to bestow firsts simply because so many movies are lost. However, I will say that this is the earliest in-movie film credit in the modern sense for a star who wasn’t the whole show that I have yet seen. Let’s leave it at that very awkward sentence.

This version of Oliver Twist is not the best but there are highlights. While Elita Proctor Otis is historically significant, I think the standout actor was the young performer playing Oliver. He doesn’t overdo the pathos and has a very down-to-earth, real quality that adds some dramatic heft to this very artificial production.

Oliver is off to London

Oliver Twist is very typical of a prestige adaptation of the era, with the added bonus of imported stage talent. It’s not terribly easy to follow if you have not read Oliver Twist or seen a different adaptation but it’s interesting for anyone who likes to dig into literary adaptations.

Where can I see it?

Released by the BFI on its Dickens Before Sound set. Very good piano score by Neil Brand.


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