Dickens Before Sound

A series of early Dickens adaptations is a hit and miss affair at Queen's Film Theatre

To mark the beginning of Charles Dickens' bicentenary year – and if you aren't sick of hearing about it yet, you soon will be – Queen's Film Theatre go back to the days of silent cinema, when stories were told on screen through manic physicality, meldodramatic scores and fancy text inserts.

It's a timely approach to take, given the current success of French director Michel Hazanavicius's Golden Globe-nominated homage to the silent film era, The Artist, which is sure to go to Oscar success. There are four films on show here, but not all are equally satisfying.

Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost (1901), by RW Paul, is a whistlestop tour of highlights from Dickens' beloved story, A Christmas Carol. It's the earliest Dickens movie in existence, but incomplete, stopping as it does just as Tiny Tim croaks it.

The Boy and the Convict (1909), meanwhile, directed by David Alyott, is a mere 12 minutes long. Based on Great Expectations, it is certainly not one for the purists. After all, Miss Havisham and Estella are cut out altogether.

The Cricket on the Hearth (1909) is but one of 100 shorts that director DW Griffith made that year, and ends with all of its characters smiling. A mere decade later, Griffith made the behemoths The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but The Cricket on the Hearth is a wonderful example of cinema in its infancy. 'Look! It moves!'

The pantomime acting, crudely painted backdrops and simplistic stories may have been enough for picture-goers at that time, but this opening trio is hard going for the small but determined QFT audience. Even the recent British Film Institute-commissioned scores from Neil Brand don't make things any easier.

In contrast, Oliver Twist (1922), directed by Frank Lloyd, shows silent cinema fully matured and at its most powerful. Previously anonymous, here cast and crew are rightfully credited, while the running time totals a feature length one hour 40 minutes.

Nowadays the film's chief attraction is Lon Chaney's Fagin, who appears here before his prime. After all, it was still some years before he would find fame with his Hunchback of Notre Dame and Phantom of the Opera.

Nonetheless, Chaney makes a great Fagin. An expert mime, Chaney let his wandering fingers lead the shuffling, gaunt frame of the thief-teacher. The rest of the cast impress too, from the mono-browed brute Sikes (George Siegmann) to his wife Nancy (Gladys Brockwell).

She might be on the game, but when Nancy tousles Oliver's hair it is, perhaps, the first time he experiences a kind touch in a lifetime of thrashings. Readers of the book will know that her kindness goes unrewarded, though the radiance of her face in later scenes foreshadows an elevation to a more celestial status.

On its release, however, the main draw of Oliver Twist was Jackie Coogan in the title role. With chubby cheeks and pageboy cut, and the titchiest figure in the workhouse and amongst the ruffians of London, he is so adorable as the downtrodden orphan that you want to adopt him immediately.

Coogan was discovered by Charlie Chaplin, and found instant stardom Chaplin's in The Kid. The urchin Oliver's knockabout introduction, amidst the squalor of the workhouse, references Chaplin's film, as does a cameo of the dog he and Chaplin's tramp rescued. This early slapstick, however, is shed as Oliver travels to London, and the film's visual richness and storytelling takes over.

Our heroes and villains move through the corrupt and desperate London of Hogarth's Gin Lane. The actors are framed by the crumbling walls of the expressionist sets, and lit by candle flame. This noir-like atmosphere is dramatic, while the lack of dialogue never hampers the movie.

At the end of the movie, a newly minted Oliver decries the kindness shown by Fagin and his lost boys. He strikes a pose that would be copied by Orson Welles 20 years later in Citizen Kane, that other rags-to-riches masterpiece. Hands on hips, chin thrust forwards, Oliver is the master of all he surveys. No doubt, he has already forgotten all his pauper chums. Watch the entire film below.

As part of the Dickens 2012 NI programme, Queen's Film Theatre will each month show a Charles Dickens adaptation. George Cukor's David Copperfield (1935) is planned for February. Keep an eye on the QFT website for more information.