The Pickwick Papers (Noel Langley, 1952)

pickwickpapersMy 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.

pickwickpapers2Just 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.

James Hayter and Harry Fowler as Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller

James Hayter and Harry Fowler as Mr Pickwick and Sam Weller

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.

Nigel Patrick, right, as Mr Jingle, with Lionel Murton as Snodgrass

Nigel Patrick, right, as Mr Jingle, with Lionel Murton as Snodgrass and Alexander Gauge as Tupman

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.


10 thoughts on “The Pickwick Papers (Noel Langley, 1952)

  1. Pingback: A Royal Affair, Hitchcock, Samsara, Killing Them Softly and Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God on Monday Morning Diary (December 3) « Wonders in the Dark

  2. Ah Judy, I wish I could come here with something meaningful to say, but alas I have not seen this particular version, but will make it a point of seeking it out. I love the story of course, and read the book back in the day. Sounds like a great cast, but I get your point on the inevitable cuts. Wonderful review and opening to this impassioned series!


    • Sam, thanks very much – I hope you get to see it some time. This book is especially popular in my part of the world because Suffolk features so heavily in it – there are still shops and cafes in Ipswich called after Mr Pickwick.


  3. Pingback: Scrooge/A Christmas Carol (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951) « Movie classics

  4. I would think that if one were to put together a list of the definitive Dickens film adaptations, this PICKWICK PAPERS would deserve to be on it, along with the two David Lean films and the Alastair Sim CHRISTMAS CAROL. Some dismiss the film as less important because it is sunnier, funnier and far less dark than the aforementioned classics, but that is to miss the perfect Dickens flavor that leaps out from the screen.

    Noel Langley, who scripted the Sim Scrooge film brilliantly, here does no less an expert job with the Dickensian comedy. Yes, I would easily rate this the definitive version of PICKWICK, if for no other reason than the absolutely perfect, spot-on casting. And Hayter was born to play the titular character.

    Wilkie Cooper’s cinematography was a constant delight as well.


    • I must agree this has the perfect Dickens flavour and casting- there are some great episodes that I’m sorry to see missed out, and yet it’s amazing how much of the enormous novel Langley manages to get into this single film without it ever feeling rushed. This is a film which has really stuck in my mind since watching it and I am increasingly thinking you are right that it does deserve to be on a list of definitive adaptations, even though initially I was tempted to think it wasn’t quite up there with the Lean adaptations. Thanks very much for the comment.


  5. I remember seeing “The Pickwick Papers” when it was first released in Australia, many years ago in the 1950’s. It was a film that I greatly enjoyed, especially the acting, and have fond memories of the characters that, in my opinion, were beautifully “brought to life” from the pages of the novel. Thank you for your fine review.


  6. Hello
    I came across your review of this movie when I was searching for Pickwick Papers enthusiasts online. I hope you might be interested in a piece of Pickwick-related news. You see, I have written a novel about the origins and afterlife of The Pickwick Papers. It’s called Death and Mr Pickwick and it will be published in May by Jonathan Cape of the Random House Group (in the UK) and in June by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (in the USA). I do hope you will take a look at it, if you get an opportunity. Given your love of movies, you might be particularly interested in a section of my novel which concerns an aborted Pickwick-movie project, before the Noel Langley Pickwick appeared. Also, in your review, you mention your home town of Ipswich, and Bury St Edmunds – well, both of those places are featured in my novel.
    Anyway, I hope you don’t mind my giving my novel a little plug here – Pickwick is one of Dickens’s least-read works these days, and I make no apologies for trying to raise its profile by writing my novel. You can find out more at: where I can also be contacted. I hope that I shall make many new friends by writing the book, so I do hope you will get in touch. I have also set up a facebook page at where I regularly post bits and pieces of Pickwickiana.
    Best wishes
    Stephen Jarvis


  7. The London scenes outside the home of Mrs. Baradell are surely the streets around the area of Catherine Place in London SW1 – not far from the Westminster Theatre that was there in the 1960s.


  8. A thoroughly entertaining adaption of the Dickens novel. It’s worth watching again and again for the performance by Donald Wolfit as Serjeant Buzfuz at the Bardell trial scene, keeping faithfully to the original text.


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