I saw three versions of “Oliver Twist” on the big screen at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, but I liked the one with Jackie Coogan the best. Several countries produced filmed versions of the Charles Dickens’ novel, including an English version from 1912 that featured a girl (Ivy Millais) in the title role. If you add the numerous sound and TV adaptations Dickens’ novel, you could program a whole festival of Oliver Twists.
Coogan plays a tough and uncompromising Oliver Twist, full of boyish charm as he goes from the orphanage to the clutches of Fagin (played by Lon Chaney) to the wealthy household of Mr. Brownlow. George Siegmann, who plays Bill Sykes, delivers a menacing performance, while Gladys Brockwell ably performs as the tragic character Nancy.
Lon Chaney’s Fagin seems surprisingly understated, especially considering the usually impressive pantomimes he displays in other roles. With so many story elements and actors, the director (Frank Lloyd) keeps a fast pace, and this serves the story well. My favorite scenes occur at the beginning of the picture, where Oliver toils in the workhouse. After Oliver requests more gruel, he helps himself the ladle’s supply while his overseers erupt into a hubbub. Coogan’s funny business makes him more likable as he transitions to more menacing and uncomfortable circumstances.