Happy Birthday, Ron Moody

I was so obsessed with this movie when I was a child that I wanted to crawl into my parents’ stereo speakers. I listened to it over and over, picking the needle up at the end of the album, turning said album over, and then putting the needle down again at the beginning. I got cast as The Artful Dodger in the school musical when I was 11 years old, and my best friend Betsy was cast as Nancy, and our other best friend was cast as Fagin and we were so excited when we heard the cast list read out in the auditorium (called “multi-purpose room” at our school), that we all ran out into the hallway, and hugged, ferociously, for about 5 minutes. You never forget the things that obsessed you as a child. I don’t dis them. They were what made me me, they were what reached out to me and said, “Hey. You like this, don’t you.” I differentiated myself, became an individual, because of all of these things. Because of the movie Oliver!, I read the book, at age 10, one summer, and kept looking for the bits in the movie I had loved, but finally just succumbed to the tale being told in the book. Oliver!, along with a couple of other cultural “events”, is part of why I am the way I am, who I am today. I fell in love for the first time, and I’m still falling in love in the same way. I don’t ask “why”, I don’t check in with others to see if said obsession is “valid” or has some stamp of approval. I just go. My obsession with Oliver! was voracious and almost uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to DO with it. Therefore, I satisfied myself with acting it out by myself, talking in a Cockney accent from time to time, and (a glorious and ridiculous memory), sitting on top of the jungle gym at recess in elementary school, singing through the entire score with Betsy, as younger school children gathered around (we hoped with admiration but more likely it was horrified embarrassment that we could be so openly nerdy. But who knows. It was an innocent time). I wanted to be an orphan, with a top hat. I didn’t want to be Nancy or Bess. I wanted to be one of the boys.

A couple of years ago, at one of the best Bloomsday celebrations I ever attended (details here), an impromptu sing-along of Oliver! songs commenced after the official Bloomsday celebrations ended, led by Joe Hurley (who, I have since found out, is even more obsessed with Oliver! than I am). I sat in lower Manhattan on a picnic table, drunk in the middle of the day, singing “It’s a Fine Life” at the top of my lungs with a huge group of other people, and felt: “My God. I have found my own kind.”

My favorite memory of that day is looking around that alleyway where we were perched, and seeing a gentleman on the outskirts. He was obviously, judging by his slick suit and tie and shiny shoes, a financial district guy, not “one of us”. We had been there all day, after all, and by that point we had all become best. friends. When the regular Happy Hour commenced, a whole new crowd showed up. So I imagine the financial district guy had come to the bar for Happy Hour, a pub he normally frequented, only to find it completely overrun by an Irish crowd all clutching copies of Ulysses, some of us wearing eyepatches, singing “Consider Yourself At Home” in raucous harmony. Anyway, at one point the Bloomsday freaks were singing “Who Will Buy” at the tops of our lungs, trying to do the counterpoint parts (“Kniiiives, knives to grind …” etc.), and I glanced around and saw Finance District Guy, holding a beer, standing off to the side, slick mirrored sunglasses on, and he had completely succumbed. His face was red with drink, his mouth was wide open, and he was bellowing, along with the rest of us, “WHO WILL BUY THIS WONDERFUL MORNING – SUCH A SKY YOU NEVER DID SEE …”

I love that man to this day.

So happy birthday, Ron Moody. I have always worn fingerless gloves. Always. It started when I was 10. I had forgotten why I started until right now. It’s because of Fagin, of course. I didn’t enjoy the movie. I wanted to live it, and I never could get close enough, I never could climb so completely into those stereo speakers that I was on those streets, in that lair, and if fingerless gloves helped me imagine my way into that world, then that was what I had to do. It helped me review the situation properly. Ron Moody is in the warp and weft of my life forever.

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18 Responses to Happy Birthday, Ron Moody

  1. Charles J. Sperling says:

    “Ye Princes of Maine, ye Kings of New England…”

    That’s from John Irving’s *Cider House Rules,* where Dr. Wilbur Larch (latent nonpracticing homosexual) reads over and over to the boys in his orphanage *David Copperfield* and *Great Expectations.* It always bothered me that he didn’t read to them from *Oliver Twist*: after all, the hero of that is an orphan as well! And wouldn’t you rather meet a real-life Nancy (especially as portrayed by Shani Wallis) than Estella, Miss Havisham, Dora Spenlow or Agnes Wickfield?

    I saw “Oliver!” three or four times when it was fairly new and listened endlessly to the soundtrack album. When I caught up with David Lean’s wonderful 1948 version, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed by Alec Guinness’s Fagin: he might have been closer to the book (Dickens did not spare Fagin from execution as he did the Dodger), but there was no music to him, only menace. Moody supplied both (“in large amounts,” naturally!) and it was Robert Newton’s Bill Sikes who stole the picture for me.

    (Perhaps not wholly wrong, for Dickens in later life did readings and made a thrilling set piece out of Sikes’s murder of Nancy. Still, Sikes didn’t have a song in “Oliver!” — though he prompts the lovely “As Long as He Needs Me” — and in doing some research, I was surprised that he does have one in the stage play. I don’t know “My Name,” and I wonder whether it’s intended as Rodgers & Hammerstein intended Jud’s solo, “Lonely Room,” in *Oklahoma!*: to scare the hell out of the audience.

    (The Mr. Bumble of that picture, Francis L. Sullivan, was superb as Mr. Jaggers in Lean’s “Great Expectations.” It was his second go-round as Dickens’s hand-washing attorney, his first being in a 1934 version. Yes, Mr. Todd, the same year you found Mr. Last! Wouldn’t Mr. Grimwig just eat his head at that! What larks, Joe Gargery!)

    Are you aware of the Beatles connection? In 1964, *Oliver!* was on Broadway, and some of the cast appeared on “Ed Sullivan.” The date was February 9, 1964, which marked the Beatles’s first appearance on the program. (Frank Gorshin was a guest that night, too.)

    Dr. Larch read *Jane Eyre* to the girls in the orphanage. Why they only got one book I can’t say. Maybe he just didn’t like Frances Hodgson Burnett because he thought Sara Crewe trying to be a little princess was too close to Pollyanna playing the Glad Game.

  2. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Really loved this post. Have been watching BBCA’s I’d Do Anything which is the show about A.L. Webber finding the perfect Oliver and Nancy for the revival that C. McIntosh planned. It’s kind of like a singing, dancing, acting audition, starting out with 10-12 woman and same number of little boys. Really fun show. John Barrowman (sp?) is one of the judges, as is Barry Humphreys, as himself, not as Dame Edna. Apparently he was to play Fagin. Not sure when this was shot. But really interesting..

  3. Betsy says:

    My autographed Shani Wallace is still one of my prized positions … along with those memories! Love you!

  4. sheila says:

    Shani Wallace, with her hip cropped bangs – true 60s style, not Dickensian at all, and glorious because of it.

    I love you too, Bets! I continue to believe that the gathering crowd of small schoolchildren was in total awe and admiration of how AWESOME we were.

  5. Betsy says:

    I have just finished watching Rebel Without a Cause – I am spent. And I am quite annoyed with my children who have no appreciation for what we just watched!

    And, yes – we were young enough to be admired by our schoolmates – and when we were old enough to be teased, we had friendships that stand up to this day!

  6. sheila says:

    Oh, James Dean. I seem to recall us as teenagers talking on the phone AS East of Eden was playing one night (I believe I was babysitting at the time), in a fever of love for him.

    I miss you – hope we can see each other soon.

  7. sheila says:

    It’s a long thin winding stairway without any bannister!

  8. sheila says:

    “What would you like to eat?” “Oh, I’ll just have some gruel. Thanks.”

  9. Betsy says:

    I still think “What Lies Below the Well” could be a hit…if we could find it. Remember the show where you did a cartwheel but you had not emptied your pockets of change? Awesome – fit right in with the character~!

  10. sheila says:

    Of course the Dodger would have pockets full of coins. Seriously, where is our brilliant novel. I am sure i have it somewhere!

  11. sheila says:

    I would have been totally lost (in a bad way) in my Oliver obsession if it weren’t for you, Betsy. Thank goodness we had each other!

  12. sheila says:

    Charles – I remember when I first read the book, as a wee girl, in response to seeing the movie – I was so bummed out about the ending with Dodger/Fagin. In my childish way, I totally preferred the two of them skipping off into the dingy sooty sunset of London.

    And speaking of Shani Wallis: As an adult, I can appreciate what she is actually DOING as an actress in some of her numbers. I was really in it for all the kids, the workhouse boys in the beginning, the pick pocketers – the Bill/Nancy stuff didn’t interest me. But case in point: I recently watched it and realized what else was going on during “It’s a Fine Life” (which is actually one of my favorite songs in the whole thing – not as well known as some of the others) – how desperate she is to call attention away from danger, how she throws herself into the limelight in order to keep the crowd busy. It’s actually a tragic number, when you think of what is really happening in her life at that moment.

    You know what I find the most frightening thing in that movie? It’s not Bill Sikes, but it’s Bill Sikes’ AWFUL dog. I know it can’t help it that it looks like that, but boy, that thing still creeps me out. Oliver Reed was terrific in that part.

    • Sykes’ dog is anything but awful– he is loyal and protective, and when Sykes kills Nancy the dog’s response is to reject Sykes– a brave moral stand for a dog to take.

  13. Charles J. Sperling says:

    What Reed had to say about his Sikes I don’t know, but he did express his belief that he “wasn’t a bad Bismarck” to George MacDonald Fraser in “Royal Flash.” (See Fraser’s *Light’s On at Signpost,* a combination of memoirs of writing for the movies and rants of a self-confessed grumpy old man from the man who wanted to put James Bond into a gorilla suit in “Octopussy,” but settled for clown make-up.)

    I don’t think the darkness of “It’s a Fine Life” hit me until much, much later when I heard “if you don’t mind having to deal with Fagin” and realized that you should very much mind having to deal with Fagin. Even if he won’t send you to the cornfield as Anthony would in “It’s a Good Life.”

  14. sheila says:

    Right – if you think about it, Fagin is pretty awful. A corrupter of youth, an abuser, a manipulator. Ron Moody is brilliant in suggesting those things, but then also suggesting the sort of dysfunctional father-figure thing he’s got going on with those boys. Oliver’s new life on that glorious sunlit square filled with people singing “Who will buy” seems less interesting, less fun, than being in that filthy cave with Fagin and the pick-pocketers.

    I really should read Oliver Twist again. It’s been forever.

    Perhaps Tony Last can lend me a copy?? Or by this point, he could probably recite it to me by heart.

  15. Michael Grelis says:

    Ron Moody was in a movie long ago-“The Twelve Chairs”-absolutely magical-Either Marty Feldman or Mel Brooks had someting to do with it also, but that’s from a very dodgy memory.

    I always read Oliver with the idea that Fagin was a paedophile.

    Simon Callow- (The heart attack guy in 4 Weddings and a Funeral- the Vicar in Room with a View and much more) took his “CharlesDickens” one man show on the road a few years ago-I saw it in Melbourne Australia, in Oh ,I dunno-2005-6 perhaps. His portrayal of Sikes in the murder of Nancy was stunning, chilling and just superb acting-and as close as possible to the way Dickens did it himself-no wonder the man (Dickens) died of heart diease brought on by overwork-if he did that for months on end in England and the USA , I’m not surprised.

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