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.
After watching the 1932 movie Hell’s House, set in a reform school, I was keen to see this better-known Warner Brothers movie, directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney, Frankie Darro and Madge Evans, which was made the following year. I was delighted to find that this one is included in the excellent Gangsters Collection 3 recently issued by Warner Brothers – a shame for film fans in the UK that it is only available as a region 1 import, though I believe the discs are actually region-free.
Anyway, the print is beautifully remastered, a great change from all the shaky grey pictures and out-of-sync soundtracks I’ve been suffering recently! The commentary by film historian Greg Mank also gives interesting background, though at times I think he gets too fixated on listing all the films a minor actor appeared in rather than focusing on what is happening in the powerful melodrama we’re watching. The most intriguing aspect of his commentary is his focus on how much censorship this film suffered even in the pre-Code area, with various states cutting different lines and scenes, offended by everything from juvenile vandalism to Cagney saying: “Ah, nuts!”
The spectacular finale, where rioting inmates set fire to the reformatory, was almost completely cut in some states, so that cinema-goers must have had a job working out what was going on.
Cagney plays gangster Patsy Gargan who is given a role as deputy commissioner, nominally in charge of a reform school, as a political favour. However, when he meets the boys and sees how badly they are being treated by the sadistic Mr Thompson (a wildly over-the-top Dudley Digges), Gargan starts to become emotionally involved. As a boy from the slums himself, he identifies with the youngsters and is determined to help them. He joins forces with the saintly reformatory nurse Dorothy (Madge Evans), takes over the running of the reform school and gives the boys a chance to prove themselves through self-government. The experiment goes smoothly and gives hope for the future – but Thompson is determined to get back control.