Lon Chaney portrays the frightful, despicable Fagin in this richly atmospheric screen adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist" (74 min.). Jackie Coogan (The Kid) stars as the titular irrepressible waif in 19th-century England, whose adventures lead him from undernourished orphan to undertaker's apprentice, from novice pickpocket to pampered youth. Faithful in spirit and letter to Dickens' immortal story, "Oliver Twist" is an exquisitely designed film, recreating with painterly care the firelit chambers, sepulchral basements and sordid slums that confine its menagerie of eccentric and pathetic personages. As an added bonus, this DVD includes the Lon Chaney short film, "The Light of Faith" (30 min.). Typical of the era's moral regeneration dramas, director Clarence Brown's visually stunning "The Light of Faith" features Chaney as a thief who finds himself in possession of the Holy Grail. Chaney's genuine interest in the plight of the lawless endowed his performances in these films with remarkable conviction and vibrancy.
Jackie Coogan had made his name as the spunky waif in Chaplin's The Kid
when he took on the role of Charles Dickens's plucky orphan hero in Oliver Twist
. It's dream casting: wide-eyed Coogan is an innocent with a heart of gold dropped into a den of thieves, notably Lon Chaney's Fagin, a heartless conniver with long whiskers, a hook nose, rotten teeth and skeletal fingers. The entire production is peopled with perfect types--a rotund bulldog of a Mr. Brumble, a barrel-chested bully of a Bill Sykes, a ragged dandy of an Artful Dodger--but it rather misses the point of Dickens. "I know of two kinds of boys: good and bad," sniffs one high-society gentleman, and sure enough, director Frank Lloyd gives us heroes and villains without the energetic, colorful portrayals of the Dodger (who has little dramatic presence) and Fagin that enrich later versions of the novel. The entire novel is packed into 74 breakneck minutes, but the lavish production is richly atmospheric and beautiful to look at, and Coogan's cute, sprightly performance keeps the story bouncing along. The print is well worn and in places quite damaged, but it's presentable, nicely tinted, and accompanied by an organ score by John Muri.
This disc also includes Lon Chaney in The Light of Faith (an abridged version of Clarence Brown's The Light in the Dark). Chaney plays a thief who, inspired by the story of the Holy Grail, risks his life to rob a rich man of his ancient goblet in the hopes that it may save a sick girl. There's little room for dramatic resonance in such a digest-sized version, but Chaney shines as a reformed roughneck, and the lavish production is well preserved in this excellent restoration, which has been tinted and set to an organ score by Hank Troy. --Sean Axmaker