My Dickens in December season is getting properly under way with this review – come back tomorrow for another posting! Compressing an enormous, rambling book like Dickens’ Pickwick Papers into a single film of under two hours sounds like a daunting task. But director and screenwriter Noel Langley did a great job in his 1952 film, and really captured the exuberant, improvised flavour of this young man’s novel. Sadly, as in most Dickens adaptations, there is no narrator – but Langley’s dialogue keeps the rhythms of Dickens and many witty lines are there intact.
James Hayter as Pickwick and Nigel Patrick as the charming swindler Mr Jingle head up a wonderful British cast. Patrick simply IS Jingle – whenever I return to the book from now on, I’m sure I will hear his voice. Added to this, Wilkie Cooper’s black-and-white cinematography, Frederick Pusey’s art direction and Beatrice Dawson’s Oscar-nominated costumes make a stunning combination – often feeling almost as if Phiz’s famous illustrations have come to life. Although director Langley was South African-born and had worked in America, the film feels very English. It was made at Nettlefold Studios in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, and features some unmistakably English scenery.
Just about all the actors chosen for the roles seem perfect for the parts, from Cockney Harry Fowler, who died earlier this year, as Mr Pickwick’s faithful manservant Sam Weller (several of his famous Wellerisms are included) to Joyce Grenfell in a brief cameo as awful poet Mrs Leo Hunter, Hermione Gingold as indignant headmistress Miss Tompkins, Kathleen Harrison as the flirtatious Rachel Wardle, and Gerald Campion, best known as Billy Bunter, as the Fat Boy, Joe, who doesn’t get much screen time but makes the most of it. Other well-known British actors include Hattie Jacques, music-hall veteran George Robey in a brief scene as Sam’s father Tony Weller,and the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell, in a blink-and-you’ll miss him role as an angry cab driver. And the list goes on – I’d really like to mention everyone.
Inevitably, a lot of the book is lost, including the famous election at Eatanswill and Christmas at Dingley Dell, which I was especially sorry to lose. But many of the greatest and funniest incidents are there in all their glory, as Mr Pickwick and his club members set off on their travels around England and land up in all kinds of comic trouble. The failed duel is included, with a comically dry and understated performance by James Donald as the terrified Mr Winkle. Also included is the farcical scene where Pickwick ends up in a lady’s bedroom by mistake after getting lost in the corridors of the Great White Horse Hotel in my home town, Ipswich – sadly, Ipswich wasn’t used as a location and doesn’t get a mention, but I was pleased to see that nearby Bury St Edmunds does get a look-in.
Best of all, however, in the film, as in the novel, are the two great set-piecess, which follow straight on from one another. The first is the breach of promise trial, Bardell against Pickwick, with Donald Wolfit giving a storming a tour de force as the lawyer Sergeant Buzfuz, and Hermione Baddeley also excellent as the bewildered landlady Mrs Bardell.
The second is the prison sequence, where, as a result of the trial, Pickwick ends up in the Fleet debtors’ prison, and sees the darker underside of the idyllic life taking up so much of the book. The Fleet is hauntingly re-created, with little touches like the man who is heard coughing quietly but terribly in the background, yet never seen. Patrick in particular shows his versatility as an actor in this section, as Mr Jingle turns up again, ragged, ill and starving but still with his famous clipped way of speech – his own fault – very. I was impressed that the film doesn’t skate over this section, but lets it have its full weight, since after all it is the culmination of Pickwick’s journey of discovery through England. Of course, the sunshine breaks through again and there is a happy ending, but the dark shadows have been shown.
The film isn’t one of the very greatest Dickens adaptations, but is a lot of fun and deserves to be better-known. The DVD I have, a region 2 release from Simply Media, doesn’t seem to be restored but does have fairly good picture and sound quality, though no extras.