After enjoying the 1911 version of A Tale of Two Cities, I was interested to see another early silent adaptation of a Dickens novel made the following year. However, I must say I don’t feel George Nichols’ three-reel version of Nicholas Nickleby, one of many short films made by the Thanhouser Film Corporation at this time, works nearly as well. The main problem is that the novel is so much longer, with so many different plot elements to include.
The good news is that the Thanhouser company has put the whole film online. In region 2, it is also included on the BFI’s Dickens Before Sound and as an extra on a newly-restored Studiocanal DVD release of the 1947 Nicholas Nickleby. In region 1, it is as an extra on Thanhouser’s release of the company’s David Copperfield from 1911.
Inevitably, as it tries to cram an enormous book into only around 30 minutes (and some prints are even shorter at 20), this film is really a series of short scenes from the novel and relies on the audience’s knowledge of the book. There are very few intertitles – usually I’m glad if a silent film is sparing on these, as they can break up the flow of the action, but here there are so few that it is hard to follow. Also, any trace of Dickens’ comedy is lost along with his language, and just the melodrama is left. It all feels far more disjointed than the early ATOTC, as it quickly moves from a quick burst of Dotheboys Hall (I was rather surprised to see that Squeers has two eyes in this version!) to a glimpse of the Crummles theatre company and then the attempt to force Madeline Bray into a marriage to an older man – as well as Sir Mulberry Hawk’s evil pursuit of Kate Nickleby.
Most of the acting is highly melodramatic, with Frances Gibson, in particular, playing Kate in a very stagey way and giving an interesting feeling of how a theatrical melodrama around this period must have looked. Mignon Anderson gives a similar performance as Madeline, swooning to the floor. But Harry Benham, as Nicholas, seems surprisingly relaxed and naturalistic. A robust figure with his hair cut short, he doesn’t look at all how I’ve ever pictured the character, or indeed anything like Phiz’s illustrations, but his acting stands out from that of the rest of the cast.
Thanks so much to everyone who has shown an interest in my Dickens in December series of postings. I’m getting the impression that quite a few people are particularly fascinated by the silent adaptations – it is amazing to realise that there were around 100 silent films of his works during that era, though many have sadly been lost.
I don’t have all that much time tonight, but thought I’d share a link to the BFI’s taster for the surviving Dickens silent films. This has left me very keen to see the adaptation of David Copperfield made in 1913 by Thomas Bentley, which is said to be the second oldest feature-length British film (I don’t know what the very oldest was!) There are a few minutes of footage included on the Dickens Before Sound DVD, but I now really want to see the whole thing.
Luckily, the 1913 British film of David Copperfield does survive complete, although it hasn’t been released on DVD, so I should hopefully be able to get hold of it at some time.
However, there are many other lost or unavailable silents which I would love to see. For instance, a 1914 two-reel version of Martin Chuzzlewit with Alan Hale, so great as a supporting actor in many 1930s Warner films, playing the young Martin – this is said to survive in George Eastman House’s collection, so it may emerge at some time, but it may remain as just a tempting thought. There were also two versions of The Chimes made the same year, now lost, as well as a Hard Times in 1915, a Great Expectations in 1917 – and the list goes on. Another one I’m especially sorry not to get a chance to see is A Tale of Two Cities from 1922, starring Clive Brook as Sydney Carton. There are plenty of Dickens adaptations which are available and which will keep me busy for ages, but it is sad to think how much has been lost. I’ll once again link to the excellent page at The Bioscope blog which lists all the silent Dickens productions that were made, both those which still exist and those which are gone forever.
I haven’t got time to write a full posting tonight, but will just give links to a couple of fascinating very early Dickens adaptations, really just fragments, both dating from 1901. The first is thought to be the very earliest Dickens film in existence, and was recently rediscovered in the BFI’s archive in London after having been wrongly labelled in the past. Entitled The Death of Poor Jo, and only a minute long, it shows the death of the crossing sweeper from Bleak House. Thanks to Gina from Dickensblog for reminding me about this clip!
The second is Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, a very early version of A Christmas Carol – only about half of the film survives, making three-and-a-half minutes of footage, but it covers quite a lot of the story through a series of brief scenes. I was impressed to see that even in 1901 the adaptation includes some special effects, such as Marley’s face appearing in the door knocker, and the spirits standing between Scrooge in the foreground and the scenes from Christmas past appearing in the background.
After watching Frank Lloyd’s early silent feature A Tale of Two Cities (1917), I couldn’t resist taking a look at the second Dickens silent he directed five years later. This one is much better-known, because it has a more famous cast, headed by Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin – and it is also available on DVD (it is the centrepiece of the BFI’s region 2 DVD Dickens Before Sound, and I believe there are other releases too) as well as online. Here’s a link to a Youtube version for anyone who would like to watch it online, but, be warned, the musical soundtrack for this version is extremely repetitive! I’m puzzled by the poster shown left which mentions a song, but I suppose there must have been one played at the original showings.
More Dickens in December – and I’m back to silent cinema, though I do promise to include some later films in this series of postings too! Some Dickens works seem to be constantly adapted for the screen, notably Great Expectations, with two new versions in the past year alone – I’m hoping to see the latest Mike Newell film later this week. Others don’t get adapted so often, if at all. These days, A Tale of Two Cities falls into the latter camp, as it hasn’t been adapted for the screen since the 1989 mini-series starring James Wilby. But in the past it was a favourite with adapters, and over the last couple of days I’ve enjoyed watching two early silent American versions.
A Christmas Carol has probably been filmed, staged and adapted more than just about any other literary work. As my ‘Dickens in December’ season carries on, I’d be very interested to hear which adaptations of this great tale are other people’s favourites – my own, out of those I’ve seen to date, is probably the Alastair Sim version, though I do also love the more recent Patrick Stewart film, which my family often watches at Christmas.
As a lifelong Dickens obsessive, I’ve been vaguely intending all year to do a series of postings on films based on his books for his bicentenary, but have only got round to a couple of postings, on the 1935 films of David Copperfield and The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Now it’s December and, if I don’t get down to it right now, the moment (or the year) will be gone.
Of course, Christmas is always thought of as the season for Dickens (though there was a lot more to him as a writer than that) - so I’m going to aim to post something about films associated with and inspired by my favourite novelist every day this month. Realistically, I don’t think I will come up with a full-length review every day, but there will be something Dickensian here for those few people who keep faith with my erratic blogging.
To start off with, let me just recommend the region 2 BFI DVD Dickens Before Sound, which followed on from their fascinating Silent Shakespeare collection. It features some of the very earliest film adaptations of Dickens, made between 1901 and the 1920s. Most of the films are very short and focus on just brief incidents from his novels, but they give a feeling of just how well-known and well-loved his works were. I was especially amazed by Gabriel Grub, a series of lantern slides portraying the short story from Pickwick Papers which was the inspiration for A Christmas Carol. Also featured are an adaptation of the Carol from 1901, DW Griffith’s version of The Cricket on the Hearth, and more snippets from Pickwick, Nicholas Nickleby, Great Expectations and David Copperfield, as well as Frank Lloyd’s full-length silent feature of Oliver Twist from 1922. Of course, Dickens’ voice and use of language are central to his appeal, but he is also a very visual writer, who was interpreted by great illustrators like Cruikshank and Phiz, and adapted for the stage from the very beginning – and these early films tie in with that.
It’s great that so many classic movies are now available for home viewing – but nothing compares with seeing them as they were made to be shown, on the big screen. So far I’ve only managed to see a relatively small number of older films in this way, but I’ve found they tend to stick in my mind more vividly than those I’ve only seen on TV. Last weekend I was lucky enough to be at the historic Hackney Empire cinema in London for the premiere of the BFI’s (British Film Institute) new restored print of Hitchcock’s silent boxing/romantic melodrama The Ring, accompanied by music from Soweto Kinch’s jazz band. I won’t write a full review (there are many excellent reviews of this film online, which I can’t add much to) but just wanted to say something about this movie and the BFI’s Hitchcock season. The Ring is one of the ‘Hitchcock Nine’ which the BFI has been busy raising money to restore – his nine surviving silent films. The £2million target to restore all of these with brand new musical scores has almost been reached, and four restored silent movies are being premiered as part of the London 2012 Festival, but the BFI is not quite there yet and still needs more donations.
This posting is my entry for the Mary Pickford blogathon which KC is organising over the next three days at her blog Classic Movies. Please do visit and look at the other entries – there are some great contributions lined up. I do discuss the whole plot of Daddy-Long-Legs in this piece, so if you don’t know the story’s ending you may want to see the film first.
Mary Pickford is well-known for playing children convincingly in many of her films. She does so very effectively in Daddy-Long- Legs, a box office smash based on Jean Webster’s classic American coming-of-age novel, where she starts off as a 12-year-old waif in an orphanage – and ends as an assured young woman in her 20s. The film has been beautifully restored, with colour tints for most of the scenes, varying from blue to gold and red, depending on the mood and time of day. It was released some years back on DVD by Image Entertainment in region 1, but unfortunately the DVD is now deleted and extremely expensive secondhand, with copies going for around $50! However, I was able to watch the restored print in the UK via Lovefilm (similar to Netflix) streaming. I believe it is also currently available to watch at Youtube, though without the music by Maria Newman which adds a lot of atmosphere to the official release.
I’d read Jean Webster’s novel as a child but didn’t really remember it, so I’ve just quickly reread it – and enjoyed it very much. She has a witty and charming way of writing (she was Mark Twain’s great-niece and has a similarly dry style at times), and her digressions, into discussions of various classic writers and her heroine’s forthright opinions on all kinds of topics, are often the most fascinating part of the book. It’s the story of a young girl, foundling Jerusha “Judy” Abbot, who has grown up in an orphanage and been kept on as an unpaid assistant. But she is then sent to college, thanks to a mystery benefactor, one of the institution’s trustees – who asks that she writes him a letter once a month telling of her life and studies. She nicknames him “Daddy-Long-Legs’ because, although she has never seen him to speak to, she did once catch a brief glimpse of his long legs. During her studies, she is befriended by and gradually falls in love with Jervis Pendleton, the uncle of one of her room-mates… but what is his secret?
I just wanted to mention that I’ve been asked to take part in a couple of blogathons on classic movie themes which are coming up soon, and am looking forward to both of them.
First off, KC at Classic Movies is organising the Mary Pickford Blogathon on June 1, 2 and 3 – I will be writing a posting about Pickford’s silent film Daddy Long Legs (1919). There are a lot of bloggers taking part, including some experts on Mary Pickford (I don’t know much about her, must admit!), so I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about her work and the era of silent film. I think it is still possible to sign up to take part in this blogathon if you are interested.
Then from June 24-29, R.D. Finch will be running the William Wyler Blogathon at his blog The Movie Projector, to mark the 110th anniversary of Wyler’s birth. I am going to contribute a piece about Wuthering Heights (1939), starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. The line-up for this blogathon has been finalised and it has a wide range of bloggers who will be covering many different Wyler films.
I’ll mention both of these events again nearer the time, but just wanted to give a heads-up now. Please do visit both KC and R.D.’s sites to find out more about what is planned, and thanks to both of them for all their hard work in organising these events!