David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935)

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.

Basil Rathbone as Mr Murdstone

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.

Frank Lawton and Maureen O’Sullivan as David and Dora

Freddie Bartholomew and WC Fields

Roland Young and Madge Evans as Uriah Heep and Agnes

Lionel Barrymore and Frank Lawton as Mr Peggotty and David

Edna May Oliver, Frank Lawton and Madge Evans as Aunt Betsey, David and Agnes

25 thoughts on “David Copperfield (George Cukor, 1935)

  1. Grand Old Movies

    Thanks for your terrific post. I love both Fields and Young in this film; they’re so DICKENSIAN! I’m surprised that MGM would consider cutting Lionel Barrymore’s scenes. Not only is his character important to the plot, but Barrymore was a popular star (he was also associated with Dickens, performing an annual reading of ‘A Christmas Carol’ on the radio) and would have been an audience draw.

    I agree with your point that the film’s 2nd half is weaker. Partly I think that has to do with a lackluster Frank Lawton as the adult David; he has nowhere near the appeal or presence of Freddie Bartholomew, who beautifully conveys both the adventure and pathos of David’s childhood (the scene of him screaming in terror during a thunderstorm when his mother dies remains in the mind). I also think that it may have to do with the novel itself; the adult David is pretty much a passive onlooker in much of the 2nd half’s plot, particularly with the dramatic Steerforth/Peggotty/Em’ly/Ham episodes. I’m a great Dickens’ fan, but that flaw in the novel’s 2nd half has always bothered me.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, G.O.M. – I was also surprised to read that MGM considered cutting Lionel Barrymore’s scenes. I should have said that I saw this mentioned in the detailed article about the film and its casting at the Immortal Ephemera blog:
      http://immortalephemera.com/10945/david-copperfield-1935-wc-fields/
      I’m very glad they decided to keep the scenes in – Mr Peggotty is such an important character and also Barrymore’s performance is one of the greatest in the film to me. I’d forgotten about his readings of the Carol, thank you for mentioning that!

      You make an interesting point about the novel – I hadn’t thought of David as a passive onlooker, since he is the one who brings Steerforth to see the Peggottys, having failed to spot the flaws in his character during their schooldays, but it is something to think about on my next re-reading. :)

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  4. Cliff Aliperti

    Great post about a classic, Judy, and thanks for linking over to me in the comments–thank goodness for those schoolteachers, huh?

    You know it took awhile for Frank Lawton to grow on me, but he finally has. I think his scenes with Maureen O’Sullivan got him over the hump. That said Freddie Bartholomew remains as captivating in the first half as he must have been to audiences back in ’35. No matter how much Lawton has grown on me it’s tough to scrap all of that magnetism halfway through and know it’s not coming back!

    Love Roland Young’s sleazy Heep too! And Edna May Oliver. And pretty much the whole thing!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Cliff, thanks so much – I will definitely be over to read your Freddie Bartholomew biography, which sounds fascinating. He’s an actor I’d like to see more of – I’m tempted to get the DVD of ‘Kidnapped’ on import soon as it also stars Warner Baxter, whom I like, and I’m a big fan of Stevenson’s novel.

      I quite like Lawton and agree his scenes with Maureen O’Sullivan (and the wonderful little dog cast as Jip) are great, but I do find him a little colourless after Bartholomew in the first half of the film. Agreed on Young and Oliver, and indeed the whole cast.

    1. Judy Post author

      I’m sure you will enjoy it, Joel. It must be one of the most star-studded casts for any 1930s movie, and just about everyone is perfectly cast – as well as having a great director in Cukor. Thanks, and happy watching!

  5. Sean Gallagher

    Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t know that was Roland Young as Uriah Heep! It is because he’s so different not only from Topper, but also the lecherous Uncle Willie in “The Philadelphia Story” and his love-struck Earl in “Ruggles of Red Gap”, among others, that I never made the connection.

    I must confess I find Dickens tough to get into, for personal reasons, but I do like this film. I do agree with the consensus about the first half being better than the second half, though I do think Young’s performance as Heep, and the comeuppance Fields’ Micawber delivers him, carries the second half. And Fields’ performance, for me, is one of the best examples of putting a comedian in an acting role that harnesses their comic gifts somewhat yet still allows them to shine through.

    Anyway, I enjoyed your write-up very much; thanks!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sean, I didn’t recognise Young on a first viewing either – as you say, he is very different in this from the other roles I’ve seen him in so far, proving his great versatility as a character actor. He makes a surprisingly effective villain in this with his smarmy little smile. Dickens is a lifelong favourite of mine, so I’m sorry to hear you find him hard to get into, but glad you like this film. I definitely agree that casting Fields as Micawber worked very well and he does get a chance to use his comic gifts in the part. Thanks very much for the kind comment!

  6. R. D. Finch

    Judy, what a wonderful post on a wonderful movie. For me this is the only Hollywood version of Dickens that is in the same league as the best British versions, like David Lean’s two Dickens films. I’ve heard of many people, including the film’s director George Cukor, who feel the second half of the film is weaker than the first half. I’ve never had that reaction myself. I do think that perhaps the experiences of the victimized child are simply more emotionally engaging than those of the adult writer.

    I recognized my own feelings in your comments about the typical movie that begins with the characters as children, then substitutes adult actors! But this one is definitely an exception, and that must be largely down to the fact that Freddy Bartholomew is so easy to like as David, and also that the film follows him for so long. The casting of the film is a marvel. I’d never thought of W. C. Fields not having a British accent, probably because his way of speaking is so eccentric anyway. I do adore Fields as Mr. Micawber, followed by Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsy. But the entire cast is delightful.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you, R.D., much appreciated. I’m interested to hear you say this is the best Hollywood Dickens and agree it compares with Lean. I do like some of the other American films too, though – 1935 was such a great year for adaptations of his work, with this film, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ and ‘Edwin Drood’ in Hollywood, and the British film ‘Scrooge’ with Seymour Hicks all released in the space of that one year. I agree that the whole cast is wonderful in this, and the choice of Fields for Micawber was inspired – hard to imagine Laughton in the role though I’m sure he would have been great too.

  7. John Greco

    Judy – you continue to expose my shortcomings. I have yet to see this film though TCM has recently had it on twice in the past couple of months. I only recently watched Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS recently and loved it. Will have to catch up with this. A delightful review.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      John, I’m sure you will enjoy this one. I also love Lean’s ‘Great Expectations’ and it is one I’m hoping to write about here in the future.Thanks very much!

  8. Sam Juliano

    Judy, I would add the Hollywood A TALE OF TWO CITIES to the Dickens mix of films that stood alongside the best British Dickens adaptations, but there is no question at all that this wonderful film of the novel that Dickens always called the favorite of his works, works on all the levels you attest to, especially the casting. Bartholomew is as engaging here as he is in CAPTAINS COURAGEOOUS, and Fields does make one forget about Laughton, which is inconceivable. Rathbone is perfect as Murdstone (one of Dickens’ best named characters!) as is Lionel Barrymore as Peggotty. (nice choice there for favorite oerformace, Judy) It’s lovingly mounted (great, ravishing screen caps! and though it is admittedly stronger in the first half, one comes away fullfilled. It remains a movie landmark for all sorts of reasons, and you have done the film glorious justice with a magnificent review.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, Sam – the review was a bit of a rush as I wanted to take part in the blogathon, but I’m trying to make my reviews a bit more concise anyway! I do love the whole film even though I think the first half is the strongest. Agreed on Dickens’ naming for Murdstone being perfect for the character, and it also fits in nicely with David’s birthplace of Blunderstone (the usual spelling is Blundeston) in Suffolk. I can’t claim much credit for the pictures as they are studio publicity shots which I found around on the net – I especially like the one of David and Dora in their wedding clothes with Jip. Thanks again, Sam, much appreciated as ever.

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  12. Ellen Moody

    I enjoyed the blog very much. Your stills are superb — really fine. I can almost feel the actors breathing. I agree on Edna May Oliver as perfect for the older woman in this novel — and also in the 1930s Tale of Two Cities (but wrong wrong wrong for Lady Catherine de Bourgh). Types of characters die as certain kinds of emotions and manners are frowned in or somehow no longer enacted by people after a time, and perhaps Oliver was close enough to the Victorian/Edwardian age to understand the comedy of irascibility as it was seen (naively) then.

    I find myself “spoiled” for these shorter films since the long mini-series on TV. It’s hard for them to compete in terms of time as well as filming on location. But individual movies can transcend their limitations. I’m wondering if the second half of this film not somehow “doing it” is the result of modern minds interacting with Dickens’s own way of presenting adult love, child-like versus sensible women (all of course virtuous and sexually innocent). What Andrew Davies and Sandy Welch do is really update the characters subtly and modern frank psychological acting does the rest. Since they omitted the darkest aspects of David’s childhood & had Basil Rathbone as an archetype, would you say there was an attempt to make a more upbeat story than in Dickens’s first half?

    Ellen

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you very much, Ellen, I knew we agreed on Oliver as Lady Catherine, but, yes, she is ideally cast in this one. I like your comment about her being “close enough to the Victorian/Edwardian age to understand the comedy of irascibility…’ – that also points up one strength of these older movies in that they were so much closer in the time and so the language and some of the mindsets were not as much of a stretch as they are now.

      Having said that, I do agree that the modern mini-series are able to give the characters more space and subtlety – I was a bit disheartened by the two dreadful (in my opinion) recent Dickens adaptations shown here in the UK, of ‘Edwin Drood’ and ‘Great Expectations’, but the Andrew Davies and Sandy Welch takes on classics do repay re-watching. Also we currently have a great adaptation by Tom Stoppard of Ford Madox Ford’s ‘Parade’s End’ showing here, so there is life in the mini-series yet. :)

      Jumping back to this 1930s version of ‘David Copperfield’, it hadn’t struck me about the story being more upbeat than in Dickens’ first half, but yes, maybe so, although Basil Rathbone is the stuff of nightmares as Murdstone and does bring in plenty of darkness – I should have said something about him in my review. I think that in general horrifying scenes featuring children probably tend to be played down somewhat in films and TV compared to on the page because of the problem with showing real children terrified and in tears – Dotheboys Hall on film is never as bad as in the book. Thank you again.

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