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David Copperfield (1935)

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).

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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?

 
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Posted by on November 7, 2016 in Movies

 

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My Introduction to Mary Pickford

downloadMy primary introduction to silent films has come through Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, John Barrymore and Douglas Fairbanks and I thought it was about time I learned more about some silent female stars. Mary Pickford was not only a star, but possibly the first movie star. She is best remembered for playing child roles, but she more often  played adolescents and adults – often spunky, sweet, mischievous, intrepid, intense, fun-loving, sincere – she was called America’s Sweetheart.

The only book that I could find at the library, however, was Kevin Brownlow’s Mary Pickford Rediscovered: Rare Pictures of a Hollywood Legend, which is not a biography. It does, however, cover a bit about her life, as well as her legacy and discusses nearly every film she made (though it summarizes her work at D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Studios). It also contains some gorgeous pictures. Most of them were taken using still photography, a hugely laborious process that yielded stunning pictures that often employed lighting creatively.

Pickford started making movies in 1909 and retired in 1933 and the difference between a one reel, twelve minute short made with Griffith and her feature length films in the late twenties is extraordinary. Because she later produced her own films (she was a canny businesswoman) and hired her own people, she had a great deal of control over her films and they tended to be technologically at the forefront of the movie industry. She made several films where she played dual roles, which if the pictures are anything to go by, look as seamless as anything made today.

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playing a child of twelve

Brownlow is a big fan of Pickford and it was fun to get a sense of the breadth of her career. She certainly played more than children and the book made me extremely eager to see her films. I’ve often read that Daddy Long Legs (1919) is considered one of her best and has the advantage of showcasing Pickford as both a child and adult, so I took a chance and bought the DVD (it also had the advantage of being cheaper than some of her other films – quality silent films, alas, are rarely economical…several of her DVDs are going for over $100 and others have sold out).

I’d read the book by Jean Webster before and seen Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron in the 1955 musical, so I was already familiar with the story. Jerusha (Judy) Abbott is found as a baby in a trash can and sent to an orphanage that wouldn’t be out of place in a Dickens’ novel. But when she grows up, a sympathetic trustee of the orphanage persuades a nameless benefactor to send Judy to college. Her benefactor’s conditions are that she remain unaware of his identity and write him once a month to update him on her progress. Seeing his shadow on the wall, Judy calls him her Daddy Long Legs.

At college, Judy proves remarkably popular, as the brother of one of her roommates and the uncle of the other both fall in love with her. Jimmie McBride (Marshall Neilan – who is also the director of the film) is an irresponsible young man who seems to get into a lot of trouble with his car. Jervis Pendleton (Mahlon Hamilton) is nearly twice her age, very wealthy and for the first time in his life, deeply in love.

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playing a young woman

Of course, as it turns out, he is also her Daddy Long Legs, which could potentially be creepy, especially since he is able to use his authority as her benefactor to ensure that she does not go to Europe with Jimmie’s family, but spends the summer at a farm where he is able to drop by.

But Mahlon Hamilton does not play Jervis as an aggressive purser. He’s very sweet and highly conscious of the difference in their ages, which makes him respectful and non-pushy. It also helps that he only tries it once, is reminded of the age difference, and backs off.

Judy ends by becoming a successful author, as well as finding love. Thus Mary Pickford ages from irrepressible twelve year old to a responsible, but still young woman helping at the orphanage to a college girl just becoming aware of love, to a successful author…but her irrepressibility remains, despite growing more womanly before our eyes.

I have to admit to reservations about the idea of a 26 year old woman playing a child of twelve, but somehow she makes you believe the character. She comes across as largely unaffected and sincere and imbues the child with real feeling, doing it better than most child actors.

Pickford 2The film is somewhat disjointed. The first half could come straight out of Dickens, with a combination of humor and tragedy, evil orphanage matrons, kind trustees, sweet children dying, the ironic contrast of wealth and poverty, the enduring and even soaring human spirit in the midst of poverty. The second half of the film is an out-and-out romance, with a dash of the coming of age story, without a hint of irony (well, there are hints). And once again, somehow it all works. Perhaps it’s the presence of Mary Pickford.

The music is lovely, written by Maria Newman, chamber music that prominently features the violin and brought to mind Anne of Green Gables…though 1919 is a decade later than the original story by Lucy Maud Montgomery story, written in 1908. But that is partially what fascinated me about the film. It is actually reasonably close to the time period of  novels like Anne of Green Gables, Betsy-Tacy, Christy, A Little Princess, and it’s quite simply interesting to see what the world looked like, not as it was imagined in later films, but as contemporaries saw it.

 
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Posted by on January 15, 2016 in Books, Movies

 

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood – Charles Dickens

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original illustrations by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes

I have a goal to read every novel written by Charles Dickens and when I finished reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood last week, I came within three books of that goal: Nicholas NicklebyThe Old Curiosity Shop, and Barnaby Rudge. I must say, however, that I did not anticipate how frustratingly tantalizing it would be to read The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I knew it was an unfinished novel, but somehow it didn’t register in my brain that it would not be satisfying to be left hanging in the middle of a book, especially a mystery.

Charles Dickens began The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1870 in serial form, but died unexpectedly before the book was complete. What is frustrating is that he got far enough to generate sympathy and interest in the characters and far enough to set up his mystery, but not far enough to tip his hand as to the final outcome.

The story is set in Cloisterham, a cathedral town, where John Jasper is the choir master, though also an opium addict with some inner demons and in love with his nephew’s fiance, Rosa Bud. His nephew is Edwin Drood, who believes, along with everyone else, that Jasper is completely devoted to him.

Edwin and Rosa have been engaged since they were babies. Both their fathers were widowed and good friends and hoped their respective child would find happiness with the other. But because Edwin and Rosa have been engaged since they were babies, they don’t view each other in a romantic light. They quarrel and tease and only stay engaged because they are so used to the idea that it doesn’t occur to them that they need not marry.

John Jasper at an opium den

John Jasper at an opium den

But into this state of affairs comes the Landless twins, Neville and Helena. Neville is instantly smitten with Rosa and resents Edwin because he does not properly appreciate Rosa. They quarrel and their quarrel is exacerbated by Jasper, who drugs their drinks and gets them so heated up that Neville tries to attack Edwin. Jasper then tells people how he fears for Edwin’s life, so violent is Neville’s temper. Meanwhile, Jasper is engaged in some odd nocturnal activities, roaming the cathedral at night with the vagrant stonemason Durdles, stealing keys to the cathedral from Durdles, learning how Durdles can find dead bodies in the cathedral, learning about the quick lime that supposedly can eat even the bones of a body. It’s extremely suspicious.

He then has both Neville and Edwin over for dinner so the two of them can make up their quarrel, but that night Edwin disappears. Jasper accuses Neville of killing him and most of the town believes him, because of Neville’s temper and because he’s an outsider from Ceylon. Only Rosa suspects Jasper – who she does not like or trust – and seemingly her guardian Mr. Grewgious, though he doesn’t say so. Also, a mysterious stranger named Dick Datchery comes to Cloisterham and seems keenly interested in Jasper.

John Jasper declares his somewhat violent love for Rosa

John Jasper declares his love for Rosa

Who is Dick Datchery? Is he someone we’ve already met or an entirely new character? Is Edwin Drood really dead? Could he be Dick Datchery? Is John Jasper really the killer or did someone else do it? I suppose it depends on how tricky you think Dickens was trying to be, though I think it’s a mistake to analyze the mystery in the same way you would an Agatha Christie novel, where the killer could literally be anybody. Dickens, I wouldn’t think, would be that devious.

It is commonly accepted that John Jasper is indeed the killer – it would seem like a waste, all those unforgettably atmospheric clues indicating Jasper – and that Drood is dead. Where there is more controversy is Dick Datchery. The 1935 Universal movie -with Claude Rains as John Jasper – has Neville Landless be Datchery, but that only made sense because in the movie Rosa was also in love with Neville and there is no evidence in the book that she is. She seems more interested in another character who comes into the story late, Mr. Tartar, a former sailor. There is also no opportunity for Neville in the book, since he is in London and Datchery has taken up residence in Cloisterham.

Tartar is also often suggested as Datchery, but because he is introduced so late in the story, he seems to have no reason to be interested in Jasper and he only meets Rosa after Datchery arrives in Cloisterham. One person has suggested Helena – she used to disguise herself as a boy when she and Neville would try to run away from their step-father when they were children – but it seems harder to believe her disguised as an old man.

Jasper has fainted after learning from Mr. Gregious that Edwin and Rosa had decided - just before Edwin disappeared -not to marry. His extreme reaction seems to indicate distress that he killed Edwin needlessly

Jasper has fainted after learning from Mr. Gregious that Edwin and Rosa had decided – just before Edwin disappeared – not to marry. His extreme reaction seems to indicate distress that he didn’t need to kill Edwin

The other popular surmise is that Datchery is really Bazzard, Mr. Grewgious’ clerk. He’s absent during the latter half of the book and so in a position to play Datchery in Cloisterham. Also, if Mr. Grewgious suspects Jasper, it would make sense for him to send somebody to investigate. Objections to Bazzard are that his own droopy personality is too much at odds with Datchery’s more robust manner and that we know and care for Bazzard too little to make it interesting to the reader if he were Datchery.

The original consensus after the death of Dickens was that Drood was not dead at all. Somehow, Jasper failed to kill him and Datchery is really Edwin Drood. This finds some support in drafts by Dickens were he refers to Edwin in hiding. Datchery, then, could really be Edwin. G.K. Chesterton points out that if Edwin was dead and Jasper killed him, there seems to be little mystery, but only a matter of time before the characters find it Jasper out. Conversely, if Edwin is not dead, then there is still some mystery regarding Edwin. However, Charles Dickens’ son said that his father had told him that Jasper was really the killer and other people said that the story Dickens’ described to them unequivocally had Edwin dead.

Personally, I find it most appealing to imagine that Edwin is really alive and masquerading as Dick Datchery. My reason is partly wish-fulfillment. I was just starting to like Edwin when he disappeared. He and Rosa have a very touching scene when they discuss the novel fact that they do not need to marry. It’s touching because it signals that they are both maturing, actually viewing the other person and not just themselves. When he disappears, it’s like his character arc gets cut off half-way. Also, I am attracted to the idea because I don’t find the idea of anyone else creditable, except Bazzard, but since I don’t know Bazzard very well, the idea that he is really Dick Datchery doesn’t strike me as very interesting or satisfying.

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Neville Landless stands by the piano, Jasper is playing the piano, Helena Landless is watching him play, Rosa has blonde hair and stands behind her and is singing, Miss Twinkleton looks on while Edwin plays with the fan and Mr. Crisparkle and his mother are seated to the right

Likewise, it seems most satisfying if John Jasper was – or attempted to be – the killer of Edwin Drood. Otherwise, all the apparent set-up would be nothing but a red-herring. His climbing the cathedral tower on a moonlit night portended no murder? That seems lame. I don’t like plot twists merely for the sake of plot twists unless they are set up properly so that it makes sense and doesn’t nullify everything that came before.

I already want to read the book again and see if I can garner more clues. I can see how people get obsessed with the mystery. My only concern is that I will over-analyze a book that probably cannot bear such close scrutiny. One critic pointed out that whatever Dickens may have intended, he often changed his mind while writing and there is infinite variety in how the novel could be resolved. When Rupert Holmes wrote the musical “Drood” he gave the musical multiple endings, with multiple killers of Edwin, which the audience could then choose.

And despite being unfinished, I did enjoy The Mystery of Edwin Drood apart from the tantalizing puzzle. I was interested in the story and Dickens’ still has his delightful array of eccentric characters. Mr. Grewgious talks mechanically like a clock and speaks of his “Angularity,” but underneath he is a sentimental, kindly and shrewd lawyer. Billickin (she never specifies whether “miss” or “mrs” but prefers to sign her name simply as Billickin) always speaks the truth with magnificent candor and develops a rivalry with Rosa’s school mistress, Miss Twinkleton. Durdles is a stonemason who hires a young boy to throw stones at him if he is out after a certain point at night (and it seems likely that this boy might know something about Jasper). Mr. Tartar is a breezy sailor who offers to share his window flowers with Neville, who feels low while living in London. Mr. Tartar also seems likely to make off with the affections of Rosa.

I just wish I knew what happens to all these characters!

 
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Posted by on October 12, 2015 in Books

 

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