I’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).
Basil Rathbone had a busy year in 1935. He appeared in seven films, including Captain Blood, Anna Karenina, A 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 Karenina, Mutiny on the Bounty, David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Les Miserables. Even The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Captain Blood, and She. Something in the air?