In this week’s blog I’m really zooming in on my area of focus; to two specific musical numbers. Both are from hugely popular musicals released in their movie form in 1968 and both feature more than just catchy songs with fantastic choreography (although they offer that, too). These songs advance plot, they advance character, and they’re full of hidden undercurrents. I can’t choose between them; they’re both too wonderful, but perhaps you have a favourite?
Oliver! (1968) directed by Carol Reed
Oom-Pah-Pah, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart. Performed by Shani Wallis.
At first listen, ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ is a stirring imitation of a traditional music hall song; nothing more or less, full of bawdy and innuendo. The line, “They all suppose what they want to suppose/When they hear Oom-Pah-Pah” tells the listener that the ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ of the title has a double meaning; the other verses reveal that ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ could refer to excessive quantities of drink or sexual misadventures. In addition to this, this suggestion in the lyrics that “they all suppose what they want to suppose” also introduces the idea of seeing or noticing only what you want or expect to see. Originally, in the stage show, this song was used as a crowd pleaser, to open the second act with a good old knees-up. It didn’t take on the crucial role that it now has in the film.
For context; Oliver (Mark Lester) has been abducted from his uncle by Bill Sikes (Nancy’s terrifying and violent criminal boyfriend, played by Oliver Reed) and Bill is now using him as a handy, pocket-sized accomplice in his robberies. At The Three Cripples Pub, Bill is deep in conversation with the leader of a gang of child pick-pockets, Fagin (Ron Moody) as they try to work out their next move. Bullseye, Sikes’ bull terrier, is guarding Oliver.
Nancy, played so well by Shani Wallis, has told Oliver’s uncle, Brownlow, that she will bring the boy to him at London Bridge on the stroke of midnight. It is clear that she dearly wants to get Oliver away from the criminal underworld and back to the family where he belongs, and with these concerns she takes on for the audience the role of a surrogate mother to the orphaned Oliver. Ultimately, it turns out; she sacrifices everything for the boy.
The sequence begins with a mid-length shot of Nancy looking around nervously, her bright red dress and deep purple petticoats offsetting the dark and grainy look of the film. Nancy surveys her surroundings and hears the first few bars of ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ being sung by revellers in the pub. Slowly, a thought dawns on her; Nancy shares a look with her friend and accomplice Bet (Shelia White) and as the director cuts to a closer shot of her face, she begins to hum along, then starts to sing with growing confidence.
At first, she ruffles Bill’s hair, singing at him and Fagin as they continue on with their conversation. It’s apparent that they’re not paying her a blind bit of notice, so she carries on with her plan. Nancy moves to several tables of drunken miseries and you can begin to see the desperation as she tries and fails to literally drag the men into her dance/diversion.
Bet rushes to help and together, they gradually recruit other pub-goers into their song and dance. All the while, Nancy keeps checking on Oliver, noting his and her positioning in order to choreograph and co-ordinate the ideal escape for them. The way in which Wallis energetically sweeps her arms in an effort stir everyone in the pub to join in the dance clearly captures Nancy’s determination. Additionally, Shani Wallis’ brassy vocals are in moving contrast to the lyrics, as she sings, “She was from the country, but now she’s up a gumtree/She let a fellow beat her, and lead her along/What’s the use of cryin’, she made her bed to lie in/She’s glad to bring a coin in, and join in this song.” We can’t help but be reminded of Nancy’s obvious physical fear of her boyfriend, Bill Sikes. Her character is portrayed as so animated that it is simply tragic to see her brutally laid low only minutes after the end of this sequence.
The counterpoint kicks in, the verse and chorus are sung in unison and the two melodies run in parallel; perhaps further demonstrating the duplicity of Nancy’s act. The “Oom-Pah-Pah’s” climb in pitch and as she leads the line past Oliver, Nancy manages smuggles him out, frantically leading him away from the public house. However, all has been in vain – Bullseye stats barking and Fagin and Sikes look up to realise that Oliver has disappeared.
As the song is ending (coming in at about four and a half minutes of perfection), Sikes’ rage is palpable and he is already running into the gorgeous street set. We hear Fagin begging him, “Careful, Bill, please, no violence.” When Sikes catches Nancy trying to push Oliver up the stairs to run to his Uncle, Bill grabs her and fatally bludgeons her out of view of the audience at the foot of the steps. It’s the act that marks the beginning of the end of the film; Bill is on the run from the police and he now has nothing to lose.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) directed by Ken Hughes
Doll on a Music Box/Truly Scrumptious, music and lyrics by the Robert B. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman (The Sherman Brothers)
Performed by Dick Van Dyke and Sally Ann Howes
The music and lyrics of this fantasy classic mark the Sherman brothers’ first non-Disney film project. It might seem most apt to compare ‘Oom-Pah-Pah’ to ‘Me Ol Bamboo’ – after all, they’re both pastiches of Cockney music hall songs. However, it doesn’t advance the story (or get my heart a-flutter!) in quite the same way as ‘Doll on a Music Box’.
As with Nancy’s performance in Oliver! The ‘Doll on a Music Box’ sequence is written into the plot as a distraction against the story’s villains. Truly Scrumptious, played by Sally Ann Howes and Caractacus Potts, played by Dick Van Dyke, have managed to smuggle themselves into the castle as entertainment for the birthday of Baron Bomburst (portrayed by Gert Frobe of Goldfinger fame).
It’s time to set the scene; Truly and Caractacus are dressed as toys, because the child-like Baron is amused only by toys. Benny Hill – in an engagingly understated performance – plays the toy maker, pretending that he is presenting his new creations to the Baron for his entertainment. Truly and Caractacus must keep up the pretence of being toys in front of the Baron’s court of violet-and-black -clad Vulgarians (typical Roald Dahl creations – the co-writer of the screenplay) while making sure that by the end of the song, they are in a position to a) imprison the Baron and his wife b) storm the castle and c) free Caractacus’ stolen children. Easy.
Truly’s doll is introduced first, encased by mirrors and following prescriptive movements. She sings lyrics which make links between Truly’s upper class upbringing and domineering father, and her doll persona, exclaiming, “What do you see, you people gazing at me? You see a doll on a music box that’s wound by a key.” However she also discloses in her lyrics how she is “yearning… yearning… while I’m turning around and around… Waiting for love’s first kiss.”
Then the container containing Caractacus’ doll persona falls open, and Dick Van Dyke performs a typically admirable set of movements as a sans-strings, marionette-like figure. All the time sporting jokey, over the top facial expressions, he mimes discovery of the ‘Truly’ doll. After a failed attempt to wind her up and get her going (nudge-nudge, wink-wink), he kick-starts her music box. As she starts moving, the glee on his face his apparent and he begins to sing ‘Truly Scrumptious’. Their melodies instantly complement and counterpoint each other. Caractacus’ doll proclaims, “Honest, Truly, you’re the answer to my wishes” while she keeps batting him away with her choreographed movements. The Truly-doll is seemingly unaware of his presence, as if they are not in the same world (or class) as one another. As Truly vacantly looks around, it seems as if she is singing about “waiting for love” without seeing that it is right in front of her all the time, trying to get her attention.
Dick Van Dyke’s loose, fluid movements during this sequence as he lays his hands on his chest in deference to Truly and runs around in an effort to get her attention are charming and in complete contrast to the staccato way in which Howes moves. Likewise, their singing styles are respectively flowing (for Dick Van Dyke) and clipped (for Truly). These performances, along with the Shermans’ very clever lyrics, stir ideas about not only class differences but also perceptions of gender.
As a character, Caractacus is keen to please his audience and makes a show of being pushed around by Truly, however at one point, he is distracted by his own reflection in the mirror and stops singing, staring at himself as if he realises what he looks like and breaks character. With a group of Vulgarians almost right on top of them and leering at their show – guffawing and adjusting their monocles -Truly, fearful that Caractacus will give the game away, shoves him from behind. After hitting his head and seemingly coming to his senses, he resumes his performance.
As the song draws to a close, the Caractacus doll leans in to kiss Truly’s hand and she pulls her arm away from his kiss at the last second. When he looks up, surprised, her face softens. Coming in at less than three minutes, this sequence is far, far too short for my liking, but the fact that it leaves you wanting so much more is probably part of its longevity. You can watch this sequence again and again because you keep wishing there was more of it.
It’s worth remembering that half of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang doesn’t even really happen within the reality of the film; the Vulgarian section takes place only as part of a story which Caractacus is telling Truly and his children during a trip to the beach. I have always found the fantasy section of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang much more satisfying than the real-world narrative which frames it. However, the stories run parallel; Caractacus is telling the embedded story and it would be nice to think that his character is aware of his use of metaphors, using it perhaps as a part of an elaborate chat-up attempt to woo Truly.