David Copperfield (1935)

07 Nov

david_copperfield_1935_film_posterI’ve been going through a Charles Dickens phase (books and movies) and have had had my eye on seeing the 1935 David Copperfield for some time. It was produced by David O. Selznick while he was still at MGM and has the kind of cast where you seem to spend your whole time recognizing and pointing out character actors. The film is so full of picturesque characters and actors that one almost loses sight of the titular hero.

David Copperfield is the story of the maturation of young David Copperfield from child to man, and all the people who populate his life. He is born to a widowed, child-like mother, Clara (Elizabeth Allan), and grows into the 11 year old Freddie Bartholomew. His mother marries the domineering Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) and dies of a crushed spirit. David then runs away and seeks protection from his highly eccentric Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver), meets the constantly insolvent Wilkins Micawber (W.C. Fields), the ingratiating and smarmy Uriah Heep (Roland Young), the also child-like Dora (Maureen O’Sullivab), the goodhearted Peggotty family (led by Lionel Barrymore) and the girl-turned woman who will always love him, Agnes Wickfield (played by Madge Evans as an adult).

David O. Selznick wanted to turn David Copperfield into two movies, but MGM was not interested. Instead, the 800 page novel is squeezed into 130 minutes of film and it plays like an animated illustrated Dickens. The highlight reel of the book. A parade of characters fly by. Blink and you miss Elsa Lanchester as Clickett (helping the Micawber’s with their many children). Una O’Connor has a few good bits, though. Jessie Ralph is also excellent as Peggotty, David’s nurse.

The three characters who are most memorable, however, are Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and W.C. Fields. In truth, I think Edna May Oliver is the real star and hero of the film. She even received top billing and was largely acclaimed as the very image of Dickens’ Aunt Betsey in contemporary reviews. It’s hard to disagree with that assessment (though the first Aunt Betsey I saw was Maggie Smith in the 1999 BBC miniseries adaptation – she gives Edna May Oliver stiff competition, but they’re both wonderful). Indomitable, jerky and abrupt in movement, and with an alarming expression, she also provides the biggest, most sincere heart in the film. She seems to hold it all together. The film opens with her, she saves David from Mr. Murdstone in the middle, and the movie even ends with her and her cousin, Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle).


Mr. Dick, young David Copperfield, and Aunt Betsey

Basil Rathbone had a busy year in 1935. He appeared in seven films, including Captain BloodAnna KareninaA Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield. He mostly played villains that year and is excellent as the cold, controlling man who enjoys crushing people under his will and succeeds in breaking his wife emotionally. Young David Copperfield describes him as looking just like a panther in one of his books, which seems apt.

I have heard much about W.C. Fields, but David Copperfield was the first film I have seen him in. He is, from what I understand, usually, notoriously not fond of children in his films, but Micawber is an exception. Apparently Charles Laughton was originally cast, but he did not like his performance and bowed out. Fields was inserted at the last minute and even had to read some of his lines off cue cards. I enjoyed his performance, though perhaps because he was reading off cue cards, he occasionally seemed oddly disconnected from the other characters (or is that just how W.C. Fields is?).

The film is a bit static, not nearly as dynamic as I remember the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities being (which also featured Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and Elizabeth Allan). It’s more like a filmed series of picture postcard, though it makes for a pretty picture and the cast is rich. I’m glad I saw it and it has given me a strong desire to read the book again (though I have promised myself not to start until I finish a few of the books I am reading now).

Random Note: 1935 seems to have been a big year for literary adaptations. Anna KareninaMutiny on the Bounty, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Midsummer Night’s DreamLes Miserables. Even The Mystery of Edwin DroodCaptain Blood, and She. Something in the air?


Posted by on November 7, 2016 in Movies


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9 responses to “David Copperfield (1935)

  1. FictionFan

    November 7, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    Whenever I think of Freddie Bartholomew, I think of Captains Courageous – a film that made me cry nearly as much as Gone with the Wind! (Though not quite – nothing makes me cry as much as GwtW 😉 ). I’m sure I’ve seen this one years ago but don’t remember much about it. The one I remember best is the 1970s TV version with David Yelland as David and Anthony Andrews as Steerforth, primarily because I was in love with both of them at the time! Arthur Lowe was also brilliant as Mr Micawber, but I don’t remember Aunt Betsy, which isn’t a good sign…

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 7, 2016 at 9:30 pm

      I know what you mean about Anthony Andrews! I and several other people I know had a huge crush on him in The Scarlet Pimpernel and Ivanhoe – he was our ultimate swashbuckling hero. He seems like he would be an especially dreamy Steerforth.

      I have not seen Captain Courageous in such along time…since I was six or seven. My memory is somewhat vague, though. I wasn’t very good with films that made me cry. I don’t think I came to appreciate a film that made me cry until I was out of my teens. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. stephencwinter

    November 9, 2016 at 12:40 am

    I am so glad that you are reading Dickens and watching adaptations of his stories. They are wondering and David Copperfield is one of my favourites. I did not know the story of Selznick’s desire to make two films of the story. That would work for me. I remember that when I read the book that David’s safe arrival at Aunt Betsie’s felt like the end of one story and the rest of the book felt like another. Do you happen to know where in the story Selznick would have ended the first film?
    There is much in the film version to admire and once again you encourage me to go back to it. One final thought. I am so glad that Basil Rathbone got to play Sherlock Holmes, a role in which the qualities you so excellently describe are put to use for the good. And even in deserved defeat who can ever forget his athleticism and skill matching Erroll Flynn stroke for stroke at the end of Robin Hood?
    Thank you once again for another beautifully written appreciation of a fine film.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 9, 2016 at 9:51 pm

      Thank you!! I do really love Charles Dickens’ novels, too. I’m on a quest to read all of them, but I have not read David Copperfield since I was a pre-teen and really think I would get so much more out of it now! 🙂 I have some of his early ones left to read: Nicholas Nickelby, Old Curiosity Shop and Barnaby Rudge.

      I haven’t read anything about where Selznick would have ended the first movie, though ending after David arrives at Aunt Betsey’s would have been a great ending and given us even more time for the story and characters!

      I always half wished Basil Rathbone could win one of his sword fights – he does it so well, despite his villainy (even though I always cheer for Errol Flynn, too). I think that’s partly why is always so nice to see Rathbone as the hero in his Sherlock movies. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • stephencwinter

        November 10, 2016 at 4:47 am

        As a young man I worked as a teacher in a school in Zambia. In holidays I sometimes took long train journeys, some lasting two or three days, and Dickens was a wonderful companion.
        Aunt Betsy is a favourite character. She does what some of Dickens’ greats do. She gives a home to folk that others turn away. Mr Dick and the runaway David both find safety and care from this wonderfully unsentimental woman.
        I look forward to reading more of your reflections on film versions of Dickens. There are some wonderful ones. Happy Dickens reading!
        And I think we agree about the wonderful Basil Rathbone!

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          November 10, 2016 at 4:14 pm

          Thanks! I never thought of it that way, but so true how DIckens’ greats give homes to those who are turned away. And I like your description of her as so “wonderfully unsentimental.”

          I actually have the silent Oliver Twist with Lon Chaney coming soon and am looking forward to seeing it and maybe writing about that one! And maybe comparing it with Alec Guinness’ version, which I haven’t seen yet, either.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Eric Binford

    November 9, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    “He (W.C. Fields) occasionally seemed oddly disconnected from the other characters.”

    Part personal style, part alcoholism (he was usually inebriated during the shooting of his movies). I love him, so I guess it is matter of taste. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      November 9, 2016 at 9:56 pm

      Thanks for sharing; I was wondering about that! I didn’t mind his style, though it seemed a curious approach to the role. I’m very curious to see some of his other films, though.

      Liked by 1 person


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