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The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of
David Copperfield,
the Younger

David Copperfield
Warner DVD
1935 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 131 min. / Street Date October 3, 2006 / 19.98
Starring: Edna May Oliver, Elizabeth Allan, Jessie Ralph, Bartholomew, Basil Rathbone, Herbert Mundin, Una O'Connor, Lionel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester, W.C. Fields, Roland Young, Lewis Stone, Frank Lawton, Madge Evans, Maureen O'Sullivan
Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Robert J. Kern
Original Music Herbert Stothart
Written by Hugh Walpole, Howard Estabrook from the novel by Charles Dickens
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by George Cukor

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

David O. Selznick's David Copperfield has a sterling reputation among classic film adaptations, and for the most part it earns it. The unusually large cast of characters is aligned with a beautifully chosen group of Hollywood actors. The movie's immense popularity over the years has guaranteed many of them a permanent claim on their role identifications -- Edna May Oliver's Aunt Betsy, W.C. Fields' Mr. Micawber. David Copperfield follows most of the contours of the story and has earned the endorsement of grade school teachers who consider it an excellent way to get children to read the Dickens original. Only then does one realize that Selznick's adaptation is an enjoyable but bare-bones digest version of a much more intricate story, with even deeper characters.


David Copperfield's early life is a multi-faceted story of interlocking destinies (Copperfield as a child = Freddie Bartholomew). His widowed mother (Elizabeth Allan) is tricked into marriage with the sadistic Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) and then dies in childbirth. Already abused, David is sent to work in a London sweatshop but find fast friends when he boards with the family of Wilkins McCawber (W.C. Fields), a congenial but chronically bankrupt businessman. His funds stolen, David walks a hundred kilometers to Dover to find his Aunt Betsy Trotwood (Edna May Oliver), who takes in odd relatives like the apparently insane Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle). As he matures (To become Frank Lawton) David becomes a beloved member of two more families. Wealthy Mr. Wickfield (Lewis Stone) suffers the schemes of his disloyal employee Uriah Heep (Roland Young). Old sailing man Dan Peggoty (Lionel Barrymore) lives in an overturned boat at the seashore. At college, David meets and falls in love with Dora Spenlow (Maureen O'Sullivan).

David Copperfield is an almost endless parade of interesting characterizations. The most likely reason for its instant success is that most of them are a perfect fit for the mental images the audience carried from the book. Edna May Oliver was considered to be the exact Aunt Betsy, while Roland Young formed an equally accurate counterpart for the book's ratlike Uriah Heep. Even W.C. Fields' characteristic cane and hat tricks don't hide the fact that he is playing a character, and not himself -- it's almost disconcerting to see Mr. Micawber warmly embrace his flock of children. Just the same, we're glad Fields ended up in the role instead of the original choice, Charles Laughton.

Careful casting was the hallmark of David O. Selznick's producing style, which he would turn into an art form for Gone With the Wind. With even the biggest stars under studio contracts, a powerful 30s producer with a hot script could pick and choose, whereas now only a super-agent or a star can put together a multi-star package. Selznick may have been the model for the super-agent turned producer. Half of Hollywood's unaligned talent seemed to be under contract to him.

Another plus for Selznick is that he didn't play to popular casting trends or let actors dictate the script, as seems to have been the case with Treasure Island. One of the best roles in David Copperfield is Jessie Ralph's Nurse Peggoty. MGM top star Lionel Barrymore becomes an ensemble player like the rest. Unfortunately, when Selznick channeled his energies into creating vehicles for his wife Jennifer Jones, his judgment went out the window.

David Copperfield does suffer in that there is altogether too much story for one film; it should have been divided up into two movies. All but a few characters are introduced and quickly dropped; we're lucky that they're so clearly drawn. The abbreviated format jams in most of the story's incident but has no time for back stories and connective tissue: we never really find out what Mr. Wickfield's problem is, or why exactly Heep uses to control him. The Steerford tragedy is reduced to its bare bones, as the man goes from adored (off-screen) school hero, to society swell to bride-stealing cad without much explanation. When Copperfield stares at Steerford on the beach, the only thing he can be thinking is, "Buddy, I hardly knew ye."

Some walk-on / walk-offs have to be the result of serious cutting. Elsa Lanchester is afforded one brief smile in her role as Clickett, and is barely seen again. Una O'Connor fares better by at least being a presence in several key scenes. David Copperfield is little more than a suggestion of the character riches in Dickens' book, a teaser version used by high school teachers to generate interest in literature.

One aspect of David Copperfield that goes missing in the movie is the growth of characters. Dickens' cruel world takes away loved ones and saddles children with terrible caretakers (poor Basil Rathbone, ever the monster) and David, like Pip in Great Expectations grows by observing those around him. But almost nobody else in this film structure is allowed the luxury of changing. The qualities they carry when we meet them persist. Micawber will always be slippery-good, Aunt Betsy eccentric-good and Uriah Heep irredeemably bad. The characters are so rich that most easily survive being limited to brief appearances. For Dickens, perhaps, the complexity is in the relationships.

This Copperfield ends up being something of an inoffensive dope. David's success as a writer seems to be taken for granted -- I doubt that Dickens himself got started as easily -- and his discerning attitude toward people doesn't extend to his romances. He falls for a rather dim and shallow woman and has to work out his relationship with her; Maureen O'Sullivan's Dora is, interestingly, a sort of Scarlett O'Hara forerunner with fewer brains and an annoying dog. Selznick seems to be attracted to her as sort of a sentimental obsession, but wise Dickens has another graveyard scene on hand to hook David up with the 'right' girl after all. With first wives dropping like flies, who needs divorce?

Freddie Bartholomew was a major find and surely helped charm David Copperfield's audience. If Hunt Stromberg were doing this show as a knock-off, MGM might have shoehorned Jackie Cooper or Mickey Rooney into the role -- ick. Nobody remembers Frank Lawton, who plays David as an adult. He ended up in a number of notable movies, though: The Best Picture winner Cavalcade, The Invisible Ray, The Devil-Doll and Went the Day Well? Much later (and heavier), he plays Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line in A Night to Remember --- the fellow who puts on a dress to sneak aboard a lifeboat.

Warners' DVD of David Copperfield looks quite good although a little grainy; film stocks in 1935 didn't duplicate all that well. It's certainly better than the old television prints I could never make myself sit through (the commercials killed the movie, too).

The all-color extras contain a special treat. Poor Little Me is a deadly musical cartoon about an unloved skunk cursed with uninspired animation. Private Party on Catalina Isle is a Technicolor curio experiment, an outdoor musical party in Avalon Bay featuring the old Great White Steamer iron excursion boat that Savant got to ride on in 1975. The film is stuffed with star cameos -- you can see Cary Grant and Randolph Scott enjoying the fun, a flower arrangement carefully placed between them!

The Technicolor short subject Two Hearts in Wax Time is the one that monster fans have been trying to catch on TCM for years. A drunk is treated to a floorshow put on by mannequins in a giant department store display. All is par for the course until the final window has representations of villains like Fu Manchu and Frankenstein's Monster. They all sing, and the monster simply calls himself "Frankenstein" as he menaces the mannequin ingenue leads.

A trailer winds up the presentation.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, David Copperfield rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Technicolor short subjects: Pirate Party on Santa Catalina Isle, Two Hearts in Wax Time, Cartoon Poor Little Me; Radio Promo, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 25, 2006

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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