“You have to be educated, David, and take your place in the world.”
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 Stone) is being manipulated by an unctuous clerk named Uriah Heep (Roland Young) — is secretly enamored with him.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
- Basil Rathbone Films
- Charles Dickens Films
- Coming of Age
- Freddie Bartholomew Films
- George Cukor Films
- Lewis Stone Films
- Maureen O’Sullivan Films
- Roland Young Films
- W.C. Fields Films
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; 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
- Atmospheric cinematography and direction
Yes, as a beloved early literary adaptation.