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.