Spatio-temporal creatures that we are, it is not surprising that we have come to put considerable stock in the old slogan, "There's a time and a place for everything." One minute, for example, is about the right time for commercials that appear on TV, twenty-minutes is as long as we expect a sermon to last, fifty minutes does nicely as a period of learning in college, and one hundred minutes seems optimal for the cinema. What are we to make, then, of films which last longer than that? In particular, what are we to say about movies which press their luck and carry on for two and a half hours (not including intermission)?
In general, movies which play a Road Show Engagement—which being interpreted means $2.50-4.00 reserved seats, at most two showings a day, and a pause for butter-crunch popcorn somewhere between the exposition and the climax—are unsatisfying, on balance. No doubt this is due in part to our expecting more from them, which we naturally do because they cost more to see than do their less pretentious cousins. Besides, as I remarked in these pages not long ago, it's hard to make a really good film, one which thoroughly satisfies even modest expectations; thus abnormal expectations run a proportionately greater risk of remaining unmet. But there are other reasons why the Super-Films so often disappoint, reasons having especially to do with the nature of a Road Show-type film.
When a producer decides to go for broke by turning his script into Road Show material, he's got to find an angle that will interest his financers enough to entice them to part with the extra millions such a production requires. The angle varies from film to film, but what it is can easily be spotted when you see the finished product. Julie Andrews is the (obtuse) angle in Star!, Barbra Streisand the hooker in Funny Girl, The Bible in The Bible, sights and sounds in 2001: A Space Odyssey, David Lean in any of his films—Dr. Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia—Shakespeare in Zeffrelli's latest endeavors, Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew. Once the angle is decided on, the producer has to spend the money the angle has won him, and where the money goes is no secret in the final product. Casts of thousands, authentic recreations of strange locales, or stunning action sequences are frequent choices for the newly-won millions in the budget. In a word, the money goes for spectacle.
Yet it is hard to keep the masses happy even with such circuses as periodically parade across the screen, and so these circuses frequently seem like stale bread indeed. A people accustomed to war and moon shots and riots and Presidential chats all in its own living room is unlikely to find anything in a movie theater to compare with what was on the evening news. Which is not to say the movies have nothing to offer—just that what they offer is usually best done in under two hours, and at a price less likely to make you blanch at the box office window. Movies aren't a substitute for life; they best depict a small slice of it.
Still, there are some first-rate Road Show films—pictures that reveal an acute angle in their conception and a good deal of brilliance in their execution. Current among these is the film version of the London-Broadway musical Oliver! It's a fine, fine film.
Without a doubt, the credit for the film's worthiness goes, in about equal parts, to choreographer Onna White, set decorator John Box, Ron Moody (who plays Fagin) and Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger), and photographer Oswald Morris. These are the key contributors to the film, as I see it—though their associates in the project are manifestly able as well. The Production numbers stand out as the signal achievement of the film; they rival or top anything on the screen since West Side Story, and in scale and detail even overshadow the song and dance sequences of that cinema masterpiece. The plot line of Oliver! is not long or strong enough to hang one of Fagin's handkerchiefs on, but that is no matter. The film is entertainment, a musical spectacular, and as such it lives up to its billing as Road Show musicals almost never do.
The film makes little pretence to being a faithful, not to say literal, adaptation of the original Dickens story. That is all for the better, for who could do justice to Dickens on film? What counts is that it offers us a full two and a half hours of visual and musical delight—and at today's prices, $3.50 is not too much to pay for that. In today's world, when delight is so hard to come by, we can thank the people of "Oliver!" for giving it to us at all.
The measure for judging the Super-Film—as indeed it is for any film—is the answer one must give to the questions: Did it do well what it set out to do? Was that worth doing? The answer, for Oliver!, is an unqualified Yes to both questions. The Super-Film typically stumbles in doing well what it does, since it commonly mistakes quantity for quality, form for substance. Oliver! sets its sights on target and scores nicely, richly. It offers a charming evening and tuneful, warm memories. That was its point, and that its achievement.