This is a continuation of my mini-Dickens series and also a rather rushed contribution to the TCM Summer Under the Stars blogathon - Saturday, August 18 is Freddie Bartholomew’s day on TCM in the US (though not, sadly, in the UK, where I live), and David Copperfield is being shown as part of his day. My posting below this one, on Me and My Gal, is also an entry in the blogathon, for Gene Kelly’s day.
Compressing a long Dickens novel into a single film is a tall order. With many such productions, the most immediately striking thing to a keen reader of the book is how much has been missed out – and, at every turn, you find yourself regretting a character or a plot twist that has been lost. By contrast, in George Cukor’s celebrated adaptation, starring Freddie Bartholomew as the young David and Frank Lawton as the adult, I’m struck by just how much he has managed to include. I’ve read that originally producer David O Selznick, who was a passionate fan of the novel, had thought about making two movies, dealing with David’s childhood and adulthood separately. This might have worked even better – but the single film we have crams an awful lot into its 131-minute running time.
I’m not going to recap the story of the novel here, but will just say that I think the film does rely on a knowledge of the book, and might be confusing at times for anyone who doesn’t already know the characters. With such a widely-read novel, it was possible to get away with this in the 1930s. The film has been described as feeling almost like Phiz’s drawings brought to life, and I can certainly see this for some of the characters, in particular Roland Young as Uriah Heep – almost unrecognisable from other roles I’ve seen him play, such as Topper, and looking uncannily like the illustrations. The script, mainly written by novelist Hugh Walpole (who also has a small role as the vicar), keeps much of Dickens’s own language – something more recent adaptations have tended to jettison – and many snatches of dialogue are taken straight from the page. Best of all, a lot of the humour is kept in, rather than being cut out in the interests of the plot, which is always a risk when adapting Dickens.
Most critics have tended to prefer the first half of the movie, focusing on the young David, and felt the film’s power fizzles out somewhat later on. I would have to agree with that, although there is still plenty to enjoy in the second half. In many films which begin with childhood, I find myself waiting eagerly for the moment where the child star disappears and the adult takes over. In David Copperfield it is the other way round, and I feel a pang when Freddie Bartholomew disappears, because he is so perfect as the young David, reacting with such sensitivity to each larger-than-life character who whirls into the story. We not only see them, but see him watching them. As David Thomson comments in his book Have You Seen…?, Bartholomew “is the eyepiece for the movie”.
According to TCM’s article on the making of the film, MGM boss Louis Mayer originally wanted Jackie Cooper for the role, but, wonderful actor though he was, Cukor and Selznick felt he was too American and discovered 10-year-old Bartholomew in England. There were problems with bringing him to the US, as custody battles and child labour laws had to be overcome, but in the end he was cast and did a great job in a role which made him a star. He never seems to be trying to be cute, but simply plays the part with power and conviction, as he also does in the one other role of his I’ve seen so far, Captains Courageous. It seems strange that Bartholomew didn’t continue with acting as an adult, but ended up on the other side of the camera as a TV producer and director. The $1million film was made in California, with Cedric Gibbons re-creating 19th-century London street scenes on the MGM backlot, and Malibu standing in for the white cliffs of Dover. It does feel like a Hollywood version of Britain at times, from the Christmassy opening titles onwards (the film was released in January), but the casting of Bartholomew and several other British actors, such as Basil Rathbone playing the evil stepfather Mr Murdstone, helps to give a feeling of authenticity.
Originally, Charles Laughton was supposed to play everybody’s favourite debtor, the irresponsible but loveable Mr Micawber, but, after a couple of days of filming, he decided the part was not right for him. WC Fields took over and, despite his American accent, proved to be ideal for the role, bringing just the right combination of mischief and grandiloquence. I’m not a big fan of Edna May Oliver, and especially feel she is miscast as Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice (1940) – but she is perfectly cast here as the eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, and makes a great double act with character actor Lennox Pawle as Mr Dick. However, my favourite character performance in this is probably Lionel Barrymore as fisherman Mr Peggotty. He doesn’t have all that much screen time, but makes every moment pay and gives his portrayal great passion and dignity. I’ve read that his scenes were nearly cut out altogether, which seems astonishing, given the importance of the whole Little Em’ly/Steerforth/Peggotty story. Thankfully this story was left in, and works well, even if it is inevitably rather rushed.
So what is lost in the mix? David’s time in the blacking factory as a child is passed over very briefly, and his schooldays are completely missed out – a sad loss, since without them we don’t really know how his friendship with Steerforth grew, but cutting out this section bridges the gap between the ages of Freddie Bartholomew and Frank Lawton. David’s romance with Dora is well portrayed, with Maureen O’Sullivan making her just as enchanting as she should be beneath the silliness- I especially loved the scene with Jip the dog disrupting the dinner party – but Madge Evans as Agnes doesn’t really get much screen time and is left waiting quietly in the background. In general, the whole adult section doesn’t work quite as well as the childhood part, as I’ve already said, but it does still have some great moments all the same. All in all, this is one of my favourite Hollywood adaptations of Dickens, and a movie which repays re-watching.