Friday, July 20, 2018

THE DAVID LEAN BLOGATHON: Great Expectations (1946)

Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and her blogathonsThe David Lean blogathon is in full swing on July 20th and 21st. Click HERE to read the tributes to the master filmmaker.

Charles Dickens' 13th novel, Great Expectations was serialized in 1860-1861 and found a welcome home on many bookshelves. Like many of Dickens' fascinating stories and characters, Great Expectations also found its way to the screen. The first movie adaptation was produced in 1917, and by my count, there have been seven films and eleven television versions of the tale thus far.

Anthony Wager, David Lean, Jean Simmons

Director/writer/editor David Lean proved a sure hand with this, his first foray into Dickens. Sadly, for this fan, his 1948 version of Oliver Twist would be his last trip to the Dickens well. Other stories and films would capture his interest.

Great Expectations, released in 1946, was the work of Lean's felicitous collaboration with writers Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan, and his wife of the decade Kay Walsh, uncredited. The screenwriting team was nominated for an Oscar, as was Lean as director, and the film.

Brilliant cinematographer turned director Guy Green was most deserving of his Oscar for Black and White Cinematography. John Bryan and Wilfred Shingleton won the Oscar for Best Set Design-Art Direction. Actors who were frequent collaborators of David Lean, John Mills and Alec Guinness star in Great Expectations.

The collaborative work of the above-named creative minds gave us In Which We Serve, This Happy Breed, Blithe Spirit, Brief Encounter, Oliver Twist, The Passionate Friends, Hobson's Choice and Ryan's Daughter.

Finlay Currie, Anthony Wager

"Pip, the making of a mensch" is how I think of Great Expectations. The young Pip we meet in the graveyard has a long way to go in life, and with each blessing there comes an obstacle.

The orphaned Pip played by Anthony Wager is taken in by his bitter older sister and her easy-going husband, blacksmith Joe Gargery. The couple is played by Bernard Miles and Freda Jackson, and through young Pip's eyes each characteristic is heightened and exaggerated.

A childhood encounter with an escaped convict, Magwitch played by Finlay Currie, is a frightening and important incident in Pip's life. The scenes between these two characters as filmed by Lean and Green are beautiful, nightmarish, and unforgettable.

Martita Hunt, Anthony Wager

Through the auspices of an upper-middle-class relative, Pip becomes known to a reclusive wealthy woman, Miss Havisham played by Martita Hunt. Pip has been asked to be a companion to Miss Havisham's adopted daughter Estella played by Jean Simmons. Miss Havisham and Estella are a strange pair, living in a mansion left to go to wrack and ruin, and using their position and power to make their inferiors cower. Nonetheless, Pip is besotted by the pretty Estella and feels he has reason to be beholden to Miss Havisham.

Upon reaching the age of majority an anonymous benefactor has bestowed upon Pip the wherewithal to live the life of a gentleman. Miss Havisham is the only wealthy person of his acquaintance, and her lawyer Mr. Jaggers played by Francis L. Sullivan being the bearer of the news of Pip's good fortune, lead Pip to believe she is his patron. The truth will be Pip's ultimate test of manhood.

John Mills

John Mills plays the adult Pip and let's get this out of the way. At 37 years of age, Mr. Mills is hardly decrepit, but neither is he as young as the character he plays. There are moments when you are aware of the actor's age, but only in his looks. In every respect, John Mills plays young Pip as he thinks and behaves. His off-screen narration of the story is full of a clear-eyed self-awareness.

John Mills, Valerie Hobson

Valerie Hobson plays the adult Estella, raised by Miss Havisham to break men's hearts. Any trace of sentiment and affection has been bred out of the girl. However, she goes far enough to extend a warning to her youthful companion Pip that any hope for reciprocal kindness is out of reach.

Alec Guinness, Finlay Currie, John Mills

Pip is fortunate in his case of a companion. The young gentleman with whom he shares lodgings and who will teach him the proper way to waste time and money in the big city is Herbert Pocket played by Alec Guinness. This very picture of a wastrel will prove to be an invaluable and loyal friend in time of dire need.

Valerie Hobson, John Mills

The fabulous and outlandish Dickens characters are brought to life by a series of perfectly cast actors with a thoughtful script and a director who understands how to project the emotional depth of the story he is telling. Through tragedy, loss, fear and fearful revelations Pip goes through the trial by fire to discover his soul and the soul to be discovered in others.

Winner of two Academy Awards and accolades from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Great Expectations is worthy of its reputation as a classic in the filmography of David Lean and the history of Dickens on screen.


  1. I recently read a SF book in which books themselves were kind of like alternate universes. Miss Havisham pops up in late-20th-century England, driving a car like a maniac and being chased by the cops like they were Smokey and the Bandit.

    Read GE in college. Don't recall if I finished. Never acquired a taste for Dickens, though I kinda liked A TALE OF TWO CITIES when I read it in school.

    The set design in this film is very impressive.

    1. That SF book sounds fascinating. What a wacky idea. I like it.

      I suppose people either fall in love with Dickens or they don't. I'm crazy about the guy. I'll pick up one of those thick novels and get happily lost.

      Nevertheless, I feel that even those who don't want to wade through paragraphs of whimsical description will appreciate the stories and characters through the film adaptations.

  2. "Lost in a Good Book" by Jasper Fforde, if you wanna give it a try - and that scene is far from the most unusual moment.

  3. Paddy Lee, you've done it again, in using a well turned phrase to delve me into something to think about. Referring to GREAT EXPECTATIONS as, "the work of Lean's felicitous collaboration with writers..." Many times we give a director too much credit, or blame, for a movie, when in actuality it is all in the "felicitous collaboration." I remember, during the 1990's, seeing Kirk Douglas on ABC NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel, where Kirk talked about movies being a collaborative effort of everyone involved. As great a director as David Lean was, he couldn't make a masterwork like GREAT EXPECTATIONS alone. Paddy Lee, in this really good write-up, you so rightly gave proper credit to some of the most creative minds in the British movie industry of that time, or any time.

    With the above said, I think those creative minds clicked and as a result we have one of the best British movies ever made. Also, GREAT EXPECTATIONS is one of the best adaptions of a work of literature made into film.

    1. Thank you, Walter. I appreciate your insights.

      It is true, if those top creative minds can't work together then the work won't come together as it does in this masterpiece. I also believe they had a real feel for the material. An audience can tell when that belief is faked.

  4. I know there have been a zillion modern versions of Great Expectations in mini-series and TV, but I always preferred the classic version. The actress who plays Miss Havisham is amazing in the role.

    Tam May
    The Dream Book Blog

    1. Martita Hunt is mesmerizing. I don't believe anyone else quite captures the slyness under the madness.

  5. "Take nothing on its looks, take everything on evidence. There is no better rule."

    A great adaptation of a great novel. I don't think any other 19th century novelist was so "filmable" . Thanks for the great write up.

    1. Indeed. He really understood the theatricality of his stories, and anticipated movies.

  6. There was a new film of Great Expectations five or six years ago, and a TV version around the same time, but I always wonder "What's the point?" I don't mind new versions of classic novels, but it's been done so perfectly here, I think it would be really hard to beat the supporting cast in these roles, they are so perfect. There's also something about black and white that suits Dickens, it gives it the right atmosphere and it's hard to replicate that in colour.

    1. I feel the same way about black and white film. It speaks to Dickens' view. And the supporting players look as if they stepped right off the page.

  7. Excellent and beautifully written review of a great film. I remember when I read the book. It was great, but I felt it would never end lol! The film is so beautiful visually and I love John Mills and Jean Simmons (even if she's a pest in that lol).

    1. Some books are like that, and then when they do end, we miss them.

      There are so many beautiful aspects to this movie from its look to its storytelling, and that cast. They invented the word "classic" for movies like this.

  8. Certainly the quintessential version of Dickens' classic story. Lean tells the story with textual integrity and amazing sensibility. And what a wonderful cast as well!

    1. Indeed. The film is so beautifully cast that it took many viewings for me to truly appreciate all of the other fine aspects of the film.

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