Though he prefers his Dickens on the page, not the motion-picture screen, Judge Bill Gibron still enjoyed this uneven offering from Hollywood's Golden Era.
Our review of David Copperfield (1911), published October 28th, 2012, is also available.
The only magic you'll find here is MOVIE magic.
When he was born, young David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew, Captains Courageous) was instantly the apple of his widowed mother's eye. Doted on by both she and family maid Peggotty, David enjoyed unconditional love and undying attention. But his mother's affections were soon swayed by Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone, The Hound of the Baskervilles), and the two married. A stern disciplinarian, Murdstone makes David's life miserable. When his mother dies in childbirth, Murdstone sends the young boy to London to work in a factory managed by Wilkins Micawber (W.C. Fields, The Bank Dick). Unfortunately, the child's stay is brief, as Micawber is sent to debtor's prison by his creditors. Realizing he has an aunt (Edna May Oliver, A Tale of Two Cities) who lives in Dover, David walks all the way to her, and she immediately sees to it that he is clothed and fed. After attending a prestigious boarding school, a grown David falls for a foolish society girl (Maureen O' Sullivan, Tarzan the Ape Man), while his childhood friend Agnes pines away in agony. When her father, Mr. Wickfield (Lewis Stone, Love Finds Andy Hardy), runs afoul of his law partner Uriah Heep (Roland Young, The Philadelphia Story), David must step in to right the wrongs. Similarly, when Peggotty's brother Dan (Lionel Barrymore, The Little Colonel) discovers his niece, Em'ly, has run off with one of Copperfield's pals, the young man faces a question of character. It's just one of many trials that this earnest individual must endure during the course of his adventure-filled life.
Though it's exceedingly slow getting started, and ends up being extremely episodic and scattered, it really is hard to hate Hollywood legend George Cukor's endearing adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic autobiographical novel. Taking a few liberties with the famous serialized storyline (all mention of young David's time in a menacing boarding school is removed from this version) and overloaded with post-silent-era stylized acting, Cukor's all star cast does a wonderful job of selling the Victorian feel of this vignette-oriented production. As with most Dickensian heroes, David Copperfield himself is nothing more than a plot convention cipher, a center-sitting symbol for the rest of the narrative to function and flow around. Rarely does he take the point on any one issue and, when compared to the crazy characters he must deal with, Copperfield comes off as rather vacant and empty. It doesn't help matter much that this idealized icon is played by Freddie Bartholomew as a youth and Frank Lawton as a man. This was the young child star's first U.S. film, and his lack of experience really shows. More cute than convincing with a range seemingly scraped together out of varying takes and selected shots, Bartholomew would grow far more comfortable onscreen over the course of his career. Here he is merely a nice enough nuisance, not mannered enough to cause us concern. Lawton, on the other hand, is all smiles and open-faced earnestness. Unfortunately, he does so many dopey things as the adult side of Copperfield that you wish Basil Rathbone (playing David's stern stepfather, Edward Murdstone) had beat him more as a youth.
Thankfully, the perplexing aspects on the Copperfield end are washed away by several sensational supporting turns. As usual with a Dickens narrative, most of these ancillary individuals pop up to have their scene-specific say, then disappear, only to reestablish their importance later on in the story. Cukor streamlines such an approach, always making sure that references are made to individuals not currently part of the plotline. Lionel Barrymore, for one, is an interesting choice as scallywag sea captain Dan Peggotty. Obviously not British, he can still sell the old-salt sentiments with his amazing acting acumen. Equally impressive is Roland Young (of Topper fame), given the uneasy role of vile villain Uriah Heep. Using the character's catchphrase ("I'm too humble to…") as a way of masking his slowly simmering evil, Young does a wonderful job of playing problem maker to Copperfield and his close associates. As for the ladies, one fears initially that Edna May Oliver, as David's decidedly odd Aunt Betsy Trotwood, is simply a one-note nag, racing around ridiculously when her road-weary nephew arrives seeking sanctuary. But in her confrontation with Rathbone's Murdstone, and the reconciliation with her young charge afterward, Oliver is electric, showing subtle shifts in characterization that we were unaware Aunt Betsy actually had. Sure, there are over the top moments measured out by Lennox Pawle (as the precocious proto-Benny Hill, Mr. Dick) and Elizabeth Allen (as David's definitive ditz of a mother), but all the turns, except for one, seem completely in step with Dickens' designs.
That is, except for W.C. Fields as Copperfield confidant and lifelong pal, Wilkins Micawber. Rumor has it that Charles Laughton was originally signed to play the part of David's fiscally fragile, constantly indebted crony. Cukor apparently didn't like what Laughton was doing with the role, however, and gave him the boot, bringing on rising superstar Fields instead. You can tell for whom the dialogue is designed—there are so many seven-syllable words and arcane allusions that you can just hear the famed thespian delivering the lines in his usual clipped command of the language. Fields's approach is far different and is a standout performance here, one that will either endear or enrage you, depending on your personal preference. At times, he does seem to be walking in from another film completely. You can see it when Micawber must face down Heep during the film's finale. When he's chumming around with Bartholomew or Lawton one on one, the exchanges have a certain comic snap. But Fields obviously didn't cotton to the ensemble elements of such a costume epic, and he's oddly off kilter when having to share the screen. Along with the arch, overdone acting style exemplified by those performers who switched over from silents, Fields draws the focus out of what is, otherwise, a strangely satisfying film. You may not feel like Dickens got what he deserved, but among the early efforts to translate his text to the silver screen, David Copperfield is a fine, fitting entertainment.
As for the digital presentation by Warner Brothers, there will be those who argue that the company has not done enough to preserve this piece of classic Hollywood spectacle. Indeed, the monochrome 1.33:1 full-screen image is soft, overly grainy, and flecked with frequent age defects. Still, when compared to other offerings from the era (the movie is 71 years old, after all), this is a fine-looking print. Naturally the sound is a little shaky. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 Surround is riddled with hiss, and the flat, lifeless mix delivers very little atmosphere or ambience. In all honesty, however, this is standard sonic procedure for a movie made so long ago. As for added content, Warners tosses on three items completely unrelated to Dickens or the film itself. "Poor Little Me" is a skunk-starring cartoon that's clever, if a bit basic. "Private Party on Catalina Isle" is a color short subject featuring a few famous faces and a bunch of pseudo-pirates parading around the California coast. All one can say is "huh?" Finally, a real hoot arrives in "Two Hearts in Wax Time." This perplexing production, about a drunken bum who witnesses a mannequin-staged musical number is just too weird for words—especially when Frankenstein shows up toward the end. Along with Copperfield's original trailer and an MGM radio spot, you have a unique, if almost completely unconnected, collection of time-capsule context.
In the end, we feel a slight amount of disconnect when David discovers his true love and a sense of inner peace. After all, we've been through almost every aspect of his unfocused life, and recognize that many of his travails were self, or at least, circumstantially created. With Dickens divvying out the information via his stellar literary prose, such a storyline comes alive with symbolism and import. Unfortunately, film just can't do his long-form narrative justice, no matter how great this movie's expectations. Many consider this version of David Copperfield to be great. It is merely very good.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Vintage Technicolor Musical Shorts: Pirate Party on Catalina Isle"
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