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Case Number 24733: Small Claims Court

Buy the DVD at Thanhouser.org

David Copperfield (1911)

Thanhouser // 1911 // 39 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // October 28th, 2012

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All Rise...

Judge Daryl Loomis always wondered why Claudia Schiffer would date a 150 year old fictional character.

Editor's Note

Our review of David Copperfield (1935), published January 2nd, 2007, is also available.

The Charge

Trifles make the sum of life.

The Case

In spite of their length and detail, the books of Charles Dickens have always been popular adaptation fodder in the movies, going all the way back to the early days of the industry, to varying levels of success. This 1911 version of David Copperfield by Thanhouser Film Company, one of film's oldest studio, is the earliest version that I know of, and while it's far from the premiere film version of the novel, it's an extremely interesting piece of history.

This three-reeler tells the story of David Copperfield, from his early days (played by Flora Foster) being torn from his loving mother by his abusive stepfather and sent to the horrible Salem House boarding school. Once Copperfield grows up (now played by Ed Genung), we get his young life and love until finally meeting Uriah Heep, the story's chief villain and working around his scheming ways, eventually finding a proper wife and living out a decent life with her.

There's little question that trimming a nine hundred page novel into a forty minute film would make David Copperfield little more than a crib sheet version of the novel. It's barely that, though, as it plays out as a series of loosely related scenes. You get a skeleton look at the story, but kids, don't use it to write your book report. Like a lot of early silent movies, it's not very sophisticated, but for how much time director George Nichols (A Man's Prerogative) had to tell a pretty big book, he gets the point across pretty well.

In case you get confused, the intertitles tell you exactly what is about to come next. There's essentially no dialog in the movie and the only character voices are through a couple of letters that show up in the story. It's all exposition and no characterization, but the performances do a pretty good job of telling their characters' stories; there is just never time to tell any of them very well. It isn't a great movie, but it is historically valuable and the DVD is good.

Presented by the Thanhouser Company Film Preservation group, David Copperfield is a solid release given the age of the film. The print has been restored to a reasonable level, delivering a reasonably clear transfer with minimized damage and no significant transfer errors. It doesn't look great, necessarily, but it's over a century old; it's amazing that it's watchable at all anymore. The sound is nothing special, but that's par for the silent film course. It has a newly written and mediocre piano score by Philip Carli, which sounds just fine, and old Italian intertitles with clear English subtitles.

A strong slate of extras bolsters the disc. It starts with a complete second film, Thanhouser's 1912 Nicholas Nickleby. It's a Dickens book I've never read, so I can't judge the adaptation, but it's the better film. Also directed by George Nichols, it tells of the title character's struggles to support his family after his father dies. It's more clearly told than David Copperfield and the performances are quite a bit better; an excellent addition to the disc. On top of that, we get an Audio Commentary on David Copperfield by Dickens scholar Joss Marsh that provides a good historical perspective on the novel and the film, an image gallery, and text essays on Dickens and the preservation of the film.

With the extras and the quality restoration of the film, fans of silents and film historians will certainly want to have a look at David Copperfield. It isn't the most sophisticated or enjoyable example of early film you're going to find, though. It's definitely worth watching, but isn't the easiest thing to recommend to anyone outside of a niche audience.

The Verdict

Case dismissed.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 86

Perp Profile

Studio: Thanhouser
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Silent, Musical Score)
• English (Italian Intertitles)
Running Time: 39 Minutes
Release Year: 1911
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Classic
• Drama
• Short Films
• Silent Films

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Bonus Film
• Image Gallery
• Text Essays


• IMDb

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