David Copperfield (1935)

“You have to be educated, David, and take your place in the world.”

David Copperfield Poster

Synopsis:
After the death of his mother (Elizabeth Allan), a young orphan named David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew) escapes from the clutches of his evil stepfather (Basil Rathbone) and step-aunt (Violet Kemble Cooper), and goes to live with the family of kind but chronically in-debt Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields); when Micawber is carted off to debtors’ prison, David makes his way towards the house of his kind Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) and her eccentric friend, Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle). Upon growing up, David (Frank Lawton) falls in love with a ditzy but beautiful girl named Dora (Maureen O’Sullivan), not realizing that his long-time friend Agnes (Madge Evans) — whose father (Lewis Milestone) is being manipulated by an unctuous clerk named Uriah Heep (Roland Young) — is secretly enamored with him.

Genres:

Review:
Charles Dickens’ beloved eighth novel (published in serial form between 1849-1850) was admirably condensed into 133 minutes of running time by screenwriters Hugh Walpole and Howard Estabrook, and released as a Christmas-time treat by MGM Studios. All but the nitpickiest of literary fans will surely appreciate how lovingly their favorite scenarios and characters have been brought to life by a roster of the finest studio actors — most notably Edna May Oliver as a nuanced, refreshingly kindhearted Aunt Betsey; Freddie Bartholomew as a sensitive young David; Roland Young as the inimitably oily Uriah Heep; jolly-faced Lennox Pawle (was this his one claim to cinematic fame?) as the lovably loopy Mr. Dick; Maureen O’Sullivan as the impossibly childlike but angelically beautiful Dora (see stills below); and, of course, W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber (whose failure to drop his American accent somehow doesn’t affect the veracity of his performance in the slightest).

With that said, the storyline itself, while carefully crafted, is a tad too episodic and melodramatic for its own good; the noble intention of staying as true as possible to the lengthy source material means that — inevitably — far too many characters and subplots are ultimately introduced, thus diluting the power of the narrative. Meanwhile, grown David (played competently but without much charisma by Lawton) doesn’t really register as a complex individual; he comes across more like the lynchpin around which multiple scenarios conveniently revolve. Indeed, when it comes to Dickensian adaptations, I prefer David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) — and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948) — both darkly atmospheric renderings of inherently gripping tales. Yet David Copperfield, expertly directed by George Cukor, remains a unique classic in its own right — and as long as one watches it with its literary and historical contexts firmly in mind, it remains an enjoyable treat.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Superb casting of all characters — most notably Roland Young as Uriah Heep, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey, Freddie Bartholomew as young David, W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber, Lennox Pawle as Mr. Dick, and Maureen O’Sullivan as Dora
    David Copperfield Fields
    David Copperfield Oliver
    David Copperfield Young
    David Copperfield Pawles
    David Copperfield O'Sullivan
  • Atmospheric cinematography and direction
    David Copperfield Cinematography
    David Copperfield Cinematography2

Must See?
Yes, as a beloved early literary adapatation.

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One Response to “David Copperfield (1935)”

  1. A once-must, for its solid place in cinema history – and for the performances.

    Hadn’t revisited this in a long time. Now that I’ve done so, I’m not all that bothered by some of what is brought out in the assessment. I read the book too long ago to bring it to mind directly – but I had no problem following this screen version on its episodic basis and didn’t find it particularly melodramatic. (I was anticipating that the film would fall victim to some of the heavy-handedness that can rear up in Cukor’s early work – but, fortunately, the tendency toward being treacly is kept to a minimum.)

    As well, I wasn’t bothered by the number of characters competing for attention – in fact, I was quite pleased to see the return of certain characters (i.e., Oliver, Fields, Jessie Ralph as Peggotty, Una O’Connor as Mrs. Gummidge) anytime I thought they’d been dropped from the storyline.

    While I would agree that the Brits have both the edge and the advantage when it comes to adapting Dickens (i.e,. ‘Oliver Twist’ is certainly a more gripping film), I was rather caught up in this version of ‘DC’ and find it commendable in just about every aspect. It’s a sturdy and satisfying film experience.

    …And I do get a huge kick out of Oliver and Fields here. Oliver’s concrete, no-nonsense nature is awe-inspiring and it’s especially touching when we see her melt (since it happens so rarely). It’s a very nice touch that, upon hearing from him that her niece has given birth to a boy, she beats the doctor with her purse: hilarious. As for Fields, this is arguably his finest work. It’s simply a joy watching him here – oh, if only he had been given such opportunity in other films not of his own design.

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