David Copperfield

The novels of Charles Dickens should be ripe for film adaptation. The plucky heroes, sentimental plots, and rich background characters would be instantly recognizable if translated to the screen properly. That’s the problem. What film could possibly live up to the novels, which often run a thousand pages or more? (Dickens was usually paid according to the number of words published.)

After decades of mixed results, three film adaptations stand out from the rest: David Copperfield (1935; directed by George Cukor), Great Expectations (1946; directed by David Lean), and Oliver Twist (1948; directed by David Lean). While the two Lean films stress the darker side of Dickens, the Cukor effort is pure Hollywood — in the good sense of the phrase. It’s impossible now to re-read the novel without imagining Edna May Oliver as the irrepressible Betsey Trotwood, Roland Young as the slimy Uriah Heep, Lennox Pawle as the off-in-a-cloud Mr. Dick, and Freddie Bartholomew as the stalwart young David Copperfield.

Most inspired of all was the casting of W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. Cukor recounts his impression of Fields to interviewer Gavin Lambert:

He was charming to work with, his suggestions and adlibs were always in character. There was a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, and he asked me if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When he got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. Another time he was sitting on a high stool and asked for a wastepaper basket so he could get his feet stuck in it. Physically he wasn’t quite right, wasn’t bald as Dickens describes Micawber — but his spirit was perfect.

Some critics have complained that Cukor’s David Copperfield is less than the sum of its parts — that the film doesn’t rise above its carefully conceived set pieces and vignettes. I disagree. While the film loses some momentum once the main character becomes a man (Frank Lawton was less than optimally cast as the adult David), that’s equally true of the novel and other film or television adaptations of the book. Dickens was better at portraying childhood hopes and fears than the mature aspirations of those same children as adults.

David Copperfield
(1935; directed by George Cukor; cable & dvd)
Warner Home Video
List Price: $19.98

Thursday, April 6 at 11:15 p.m. eastern on Turner Classic Movies