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The Hidden Unwed Mother of an Oscar-Winning Film

Tonight I got to watch an old movie, a favorite I haven’t seen since I was a child: Lionel Bart’s “Oliver!,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1968. Sir Carol Reed directed; the stars are Ron Moody, Shani Wallis, Oliver Reed, Mark Lester and Jack Wild. It’s a musical, loosely based on the Dickens novel Oliver Twist. Onna White did the choreography; the film won six Oscars and was nominated for 11. Moody and Wild are both brilliant, and Lester is a gorgeous innocent boy in the title role. I remember him as much blonder in the original print, but I was very glad to see the show via Netflix. The movie figures in a minor way in my first novel, Murder at Willow Slough. The hero of that story is also blond and innocent, and the one Gay-ish attribute I gave his macho cop/love interest is a bigtime fixation on the film and the title character. So you can imagine my delight in seeing the movie again 40 years later. Still, there are several disturbing ideas in the picture, which cause me to write about it as follows.

Dickens is essentially sanitized out of his own musical; the novel is really rather dark. The author’s art lay in his ability to combine immensely popular melodrama, a rags-to-riches tale, with searing social criticism of the English class system and the Industrial Revolution. In a Dickens novel the poor are oppressed in every way; they don’t even own their own labor, but are forced into serving the moneyed classes. The musical casts all this in a much lighter tone, with Fagin the “evil Jew” remade into a benevolent, if greedy (and slightly pedophilic) master of a ring of juvenile pickpockets. Many of Bart’s songs were hits in their day and continue to arouse emotion. And yet, even in this Disneyfied version, a little of Dickens’ wrath seeps through, and those are the parts of the film that stayed with me, more than the pretty little put-upon boy.

The movie opens in a workhouse, where barefoot orphans tread a giant wheel that mills grain, living only for “Food, Glorious Food,” though their only meal is gruel. Meanwhile the workhouse governors feast on every imaginable delicacy. The system is overseen by an Anglican beadle, played by Harry Secombe. From Wikipedia:

In England, the word (beadle) came to refer to a parish constable of the Anglican Church, one often charged with duties of charity. A famous fictional constabulary beadle is Mr. Bumble from Charles Dickens’ classic Oliver Twist, who oversees the parish workhouse and orphanage.

Even in the sweetened-up movie, it’s plain that Dickens is indicting the Church of England.

Uh, that’s my church, Mr. Dickens. Yikes.

By the end of the story, Oliver the orphan is restored to his wealthy uncle in London, who lives in a fabulous townhouse on a fashionable square; Dickens and Bart get their happy ending by popular demand. (My books also have happy endings, for what that’s worth.) The movie takes half a minute to connect the boy, his mother and his uncle—and there lies another of Dickens’ accusations, the one most relevant to this post.

The uncle’s niece, Oliver’s mother, eloped with a man, or tried to; he promised marriage but didn’t show up, and meanwhile she was pregnant. (This same scenario figures prominently in Jane Austen’s novels, by which we know that this was a common complaint of the time: the wealthy cad, the fallen and gullible woman who was thereby ruined because she had sex before marriage.) Thrown out of society by unforgivable scandal, she was reduced to a distant parish workhouse, where she gave birth and promptly died, thus bringing Oliver into the worst possible world.

And meanwhile the vestry feasts.

Here’s what I think about: the immorality not of the woman but of the cad; and of the code that dictated that an unwed mother be reduced to penury and even death for her sexual sin.

This is Anglicanism? This is Christianity?

No, this is hypocrisy. Jesus famously encountered prostitutes, healed their ills out of love for their common humanity, and told them to sin no more, as if any mortal were capable of that.

WELL. we’re past all that now, unwed mothers are a dime a dozen these days, and this really is a better understanding than during Austen’s and Dickens’ time. Right?

No woman should be reduced to penury in the workhouse just because she was human and had sex. Besides, we’ve got birth control now. Popular morality has replaced the ancient taboos of respectable Christianity, which punished the woman and let the man off scot-free.

Sometimes popular morality makes more sense and corrects old injustices. The same thing is happening with Gay rights.

BUT the other day I received a comment on my prayer site that brought these old issues into focus in a current way. The commenter was a former monk, an openly-Gay guy, who left his order under pressure from his closeted Gay brothers, who turned on him to deflect suspicion from themselves.

He’d still like to be a monk, but not under those terms. I don’t blame him.

I’m not sure this kind of oppression by the closeted against the open still happens much in the Episcopal Church—we have a Gay bishop, for heaven’s sake—but my friend Jonathan of Madpriest fame (Of Course I Could Be Wrong) indicates it still happens all the time in the Church of England. He claims that closeted Gay priests took down Jeffrey Johns, a Gay priest nominated for bishop by Archbishop Rowan Williams, then thrown under the bus, and that these same closeted queers, a significant bloc in the Anglo-Catholic party, are the main opponents of women priests.

We’ve all heard of this kind of situation, but I’ve never actually seen it. Then again, I’m openly Gay and no one’s nominated me for street sweeper.

What is it that causes such hypocrisy? Why would Gay men shoot down another Gay man nominated for bishop?

Carol Reed’s “Oliver!”, no matter how lightened up, still supplies an answer in images: ragamuffins eating gruel, Governors feasting.

Greed isn’t just one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it is funded by the watery oatmeal of children.

And sex is the justification.

If Fr. Jonathan is right, nothing has changed since Dickens’ day. Hypocrites still climb the backs of innocents to attain power and wealth, and the truth doesn’t matter.

Would you want your child confirmed by a closeted and sexist Gay bishop?

No matter how much Lionel Bart sugared up the story, it still exposes hypocrisy, and not just in 1840 surrounded by pretty songs. The moral actor in Carol Reed’s film, Oliver’s uncle, delivers brief but stunning denunciations.

I’m glad Oliver got to grow up in a nice townhouse. But the essential question remains in Bart’s song, “Where Is Love?”++

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