"In everybody there is a certain thing that loves babies, that fears death, that likes sunlight: this thing enjoys Dickens."
- G.K. Chesterton
David Copperfield, published as The Personal History, Adventures, Experience & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) in 1850 after its initial serialization is Dickens' fictional autobiography and had a special place in his heart: "Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield."
That fondness has been shared by generations of readers one of whom was producer David Selznick, whose father read the story to his young family. In 1935, after much haggling, Selznick was given the go-ahead by father-in-law Louis B. Mayer to produce the film of David Copperfield. Selznick must have been in a Dickens mood in 1935, for the sterling adaption of A Tale of Two Cities also came under his purview that year.
George Cukor (Little Women) directed the film to a Best Picture nomination. Look at the quality competition that year: Mutiny on the Bounty (winner), Alice Adams, Broadway Melody of 1936, Captain Blood, David Copperfield, The Informer, Les Miserables, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Naughty Marietta, Ruggles of Red Gap and Top Hat. Ah, to be a movie-goer in the 30s!
Hugh Walpole (Kind Lady) adapted the novel and played the small role of the Vicar. The screenplay is by Lenore Coffee (Four Daughters) and Howard Estabrook (Cimarron). Adapting a familiar and well-loved novel for the screen can have its drawbacks as to meeting expectations of fans, but the necessary cuts and telescoping of events, in this case, was done with great care and taste. The movie experience of David Copperfield does not cheat fans of the novel as the characters were brilliantly cast.
Young David is played by Freddie Bartholomew in his first American feature. Local boys, Jackie Cooper and David Holt had been considered, but Selznick properly wanted a British juvenile for the title character. The ten-year-old actor gives a most winning performance that audiences cannot help taking to their hearts. He is so touching and llikablethat it took me years to realize that 30-year-old Frank Lawton as the grown David is not a poor David but, as anyone would be, only a poor substitute for Freddie. David the youngster is beset by troubles that make us long for his rescue. Adult David does not have the luxury of our pity, only the good will of our affection.
Elizabeth Allen, Freddie Bartholomew, Basil Rathbone, Violet Kemble Cooper
Mrs. Copperfield, young David, Murdstone, Miss Murdstone
David's young society is dominated by his tender-hearted mother played by Elizabeth Allen. A young widow she makes an unfortunate second marriage to the loathsome Mr. Murdstone played with cold relish by Basil Rathbone and his equally nasty sister played by Violet Kemble Cooper. Life under the Murdstones is hard for David and his mother with their only protection coming from the endearing nursemaid Peggotty played by Jessie Ralph. David finds an extended family with his nurse's brother, the fisherman Dan Peggotty played by Lionel Barrymore. There his friendships include Dan's daughter Emily and the orphaned Ham. Emily is played by Frances Chaldecott (also in A Tale of Two Cities) as a child and by Florine McKinney as a young woman. John Buckler, the son of actor Hugh Buckler (The Last of the Mohicans), plays the loyal Ham.
Lennox Pawle, Freddie Bartholomew, Edna May Oliver
Mr. Dick, David, Aunt Betsey
Another bit of perfect casting is Edna May Oliver as David's brusque and eccentric Aunt Betsey Trotwood. She was also cast as Miss Pross in A Tale of Two Cities, another quintessential role. Her companion, the addled Mr. Dick is delightfully played by Lennox Pawle. Through his aunt, David is acquainted with the benevolent but dissolute lawyer Mr. Wickfield played by Lewis Stone and his duplicitous assistant Uriah Heep played by Roland Young. Wickfield's daughter Agnes is played as a child by Marilyn Knowlden. Marilyn's most famous literary to screen character is Cosette in Les Miserables. Madge Evans is Agnes as a young woman.
W.C. Fields, Freddie Bartholomew
Mr. Wilkins Micawber, David Copperfield
Perhaps David's most colourful friend and most famous portrayer is the outlandish Mr. Micawber played by W.C. Fields. Replacing Charles Laughton in the role, Fields, like his castmates, acquits himself admirably, owning the role with his dedication and the force of his considerable personality.
Herbert Mundin, Freddie Bartholomew, Jessie Ralph
Barkis, David, Peggotty
The details of the story, David's rise from poverty and abuse, his benefactors and enemies, his loves and losses are beautifully told with exquisite attention to a sense of time and place through setting, costume and characterizations. Each role is so flawlessly cast that alternate actors are unimaginable. Maureen O'Sullivan as Dora, Herbert Mundin as Barkis, Arthur Treacher as a crook, Jean Cadell as Mrs. Micawber, Elsa Lanchester as Clickett, Hugh Williams as Steerforth and Una O'Connor as Mrs. Gummidge. More than simply a satisfying movie version of a popular tale, 1935s David Copperfield is a truly great movie; a testament to its creators and the studio system.
TCM is screening David Copperfield on Sunday, December 14th at 10:15 am. Stop that Christmas baking, delay that Christmas shopping, and give yourself a treat whether for the first or hundredth time.