David Copperfield (1935)
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Charles Dickens' masterpiece comes to marvelous life in this triumphant translation from literary classic into film. Enormous care was taken by MGM to get the look & feel just right - to make the viewer believe they were seeing the novel spread out before them, without a false moment from start to finish. (The Studio even went so far as to use special on-location exterior filming at Canterbury Cathedral, a segment that only runs for a few seconds.)
The all-star cast is remarkable:
Freddie Bartholomew, newly brought from England by his aunt, is perfect in the role of Young David; his anguish at the death of his mother is almost palpable.
Replacing a reluctant Charles Laughton, W. C. Fields proved a triumph in the comic role of the penniless Mr. Micawber, always confident of something `turning up.' (You might think Fields' American accent & mannerisms would tend to be grating, but he turns in what is arguably his finest performance. Fields had loved Dickens' novels for years and always kept a few in his vaudeville trunk. He knew the role and how to play it. Here he takes the character of Micawber, tweaks it slightly, and delights us.)
Lionel Barrymore, as the old fisherman Dan'l Peggoty, adding yet another exceptional portrait to his gallery of character parts.
Edna May Oliver is unforgettable as the stern, yet loving, Aunt Betsey, forever chasing donkeys off her property - fiercely defensive of those she cares for.
Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone, dark & dangerous, full of passions & fury.
Maureen O'Sullivan as darling Dora, sweet & doomed.
Roland Young as an oily Uriah Heep, sniveling & devious.
Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Allan, Una O'Connor, Lennox Pawle, Elsa Lanchester, Violet Kemble Cooper, Madge Evans, Frank Lawton - all perfectly cast.
(Look for E. E. Clive, Lionel Belmore & Arthur Treacher in tiny uncredited roles. Sir Hugh Walpole, the celebrated English novelist who adapted the novel for the screen, appears as the Vicar.)
Savor this wonderful film again & again.
It would be hard even to list all of the good performances. Edna May Oliver almost seems to have born to play Dickens's kind of strong-willed but caring female character. W.C. Fields is perhaps somewhat different from the novel's conception of Micawber, but he is quite entertaining, and he gets plenty of good lines. Characters like Uriah Heep, Mr. Dick, the Murdstones, and several others could have come straight from the novel. As the adult Copperfield, Frank Lawton is sometimes rather bland, but he is likable and is at least believable as Bartholomew's grown-up counterpart.
The story, of necessity, is episodic and moves quite quickly, usually including only the highlights of the narrative. But it does a very good job of this, making each sequence work well, and efficiently fitting each one into the story as a whole. George Cukor certainly deserves a good deal of credit for making it work and fit together so well. The settings, which are always important in a Dickens story, are also for the most part pretty good.
The original novel "David Copperfield" is such a fine classic of literature that no two-hour movie could be on quite the same level, but this version is quite enjoyable, and it does a very good job of depicting the atmosphere and most of the important events of the story.
Freddie Bartholomew is flawless as the young David. Edna May Oliver as his stern but loving Aunt Betsy Trotwood gives her usual sharp characterization and nearly steals the first half of the movie. As for Mr. Murdstone, Basil Rathbone is the perfect embodiment of that brutally wicked man. Born to play Mr. Micawber is W. C. Fields, so uncannily right that it almost seems as if Dickens had him in mind when he wrote the character!
Very atmospheric, so much so that it seems almost incredible that an American movie company could have crafted this gem. One would think the British would have beat us to it--but Dickens would have approved of this version, I'm sure.
The only drawback is the length and the scenes involving David's wife, Dora, as played by Maureen O'Sullivan with a saccharine sweetness that becomes cloying at times. (Thank God she didn't play Melanie in 'GWTW'). Some of the acting is a bit florid but to be expected when you consider this was made in 1935. Roland Young is well cast as Uriah Heep.
Highly recommended. Anyone who cherishes the Dickens novel will not be disappointed. The only flaw is that the story has been compressed in order to limit the running time to two hours and ten minutes and it shows. All the essential characters remain but some of them have little dimension because of time constraints.
But those are minor points really. The best jobs in the film are the work of the performers under George Cukor's direction: Edna Mae Oliver as the crusty, wise Aunt Betsy; Roland Young as the evil, greasy Uriah Heep (his best villain part); and W.C.Fields as Wilkins McCawber (Dicken's tribute to his lovable but improvident father) is superb - the one time his comic personae met the proper dramatic role; and Lionel Barrymore as Dan Pegotty determined to find his lost, ruined niece. Freddy Bartholemew's performance as young David is wonderful. But I must admit that Frank Lawson is a trifle colorless as the grown up David (although he has a funny moment at a dinner that Dora (Maureen O'Sullivan) tries to prepare). It is a weakness but a small weakness in a nearly perfect film.
To me Freddie Bartholomew as young David is the most moving character because as a sensitive, loving child he must endure so much injustice and heartache, what with the loss of his mother, the brutal treatment from his stepfather, and then being sent away to a workhouse, only to flee to the safety of his aunt in Dover, walking all the way by foot, in hopes of a better life to grow up in. The stark realistic atmosphere that envelops many of the episodic scenes draws one into the tale with captivating ease. I consider it even more convincing than the scenes from "Great Expectations", the version with John Mills in it.
W.C. Fields gives a remarkably sincere and fine portrayal of Mr. Macawber with all his many subtleties of speech. I couldn't picture it being performed as well by anyone else, and I think Ch. Laughton would not have been the right choice or as convincing.
I put this early film at the top of my list of great ones!
W.C. Fields can act- he's not just playing himself here. Although Mr. Micawber is a somewhat Fields-ish fellow, Fields adds a touching sincerity to Micawber's belief that he will come out ahead someday to everyone's benefit. Micawber's denunciation of Uriah Heep is both fun and close to what one can picture from the novel.
A lot of plot is left out, since you can't really cram an epic like that into a 2 hour film- the BBC miniseries is better for depth of character and filling in plot holes- but this 1935 version can be considered a classic for those looking for a nice large-screen adaptation with some incredibly good character actors.
I have always loved W.C. Fields, but have to disagree with those who say he steals the show. Although he is perfect as Mcawber, to me it is Edna May Oliver who steals the picture. She is delightful as the dotty aunt especially standing up to Mr. and Miss Murdstone with the loony backing of Mr. Dick (a charming Lennox Pawle).
Of course Lionel Barrymore always makes the most of a part and does so as the gruff fisherman Dan Peggotty. Freddie Bartholomew is excellent as the young David. Elizabeth Allen is gorgeous and delightful as David's mother, while Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble Cooper are cold and devious as the step-father and his housekeeper sister.
The entire cast is excellent, including Jessie Ralph as Peggotty and Herbert Mundin as the 'willing' Barkis. My only complaint and this is from one who hasn't read the book is that the miscellaneous characters get a bit confusing. A guy who apparently had been nice to David in school runs off with and abandons the adopted daughter of Peggotty's brother. Then two men fight during a shipwreck and David sees his school friend dead. Perhaps things were better spelled out in the book.
In any event, it is a quite charming film. Oliver and Field are delightful, along with the rest of the talented cast. I doubt that as better adaptation could be done today.
For those who say that the actor portraying Davy as an adult is quite bland, I felt that this was the director's way of introducing us to Davy's adult self gradually. Davy was a boy whose parents had died young. He was later abused and then raised by good family and friends, and when he grew up he had the good judgment of someone who has been 'through the fire'. His adult character was rather like a steel that been made stronger by going through the flames. He was able to help expose the villainy of Urian Heap (rhymes with creep).
I felt that W.C. Fields made a dramatic role quite comedic; I feel that in this movie the roles were one and the same.
I never tire of seeing Edna May Oliver.
The loving household young David enjoys as a child takes ugly turn when his widowed mother marries the cold and callous Murdstone who brings his equally humorless sister along. Battering and badgering both mother and son matters become unendurable when the mother succumbs and Murdstone and sis hammer David even more. David takes to the road and encounters a variety of challenges eventually making his way to an aunt who had rejected him as a child for not being a girl but embraces him now and is more than well prepared to take on the Murdstones.
As David the magnificent child actor Freddie Bartholmew is mature and responsive beyond his years carry the lead throughout. As the aunt Edna Mae Oliver dominates her scenes in the same way she did in Tale of Two Cities, ditto for the villainous styling of Basil Rathbone who matches his callous and venal Evermonde to the equally vile Murdstone. Elizabeth Allan as David's mother is the one glaring misstep in the cast with her mannered fretting stifled and erratic.
Cukor for his part moves things along at a breezy enough pace re introducing characters and building on the plot in a seamless relaxed fashion ably working the constraints of the medium to give a lush interpretation of this classic novel.
Played in biographical form, the life story of David Copperfield is said to be the life of its creator, with the opening title "Like many fine parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child, and his name is David Copperfield" by Charles Dickens, indicating that. Opening with the passage of a book reading, Chapter One, "I Am Born," the wonderful life of David Copperfield begins with his birth to Clara Copperfield (Elizabeth Allan), a young widow whose husband died six months previously. Over the years, David,the boy (Freddie Bartholomew) has been reared by both mother and Nurse Paggerty (Jessie Ralph). After Clara's marriage to the stern Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone), their once happy existence turns for the worse when David, who has never liked his stepfather, is abused with severe punishments by him. After Clara dies in childbirth, Murdstone puts David to work in a London factory under the care of family man, Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields). David finds happiness with the Micawbers until being forced to leave town after Micawber serves time in debtor's prison. Not wanting to return to Mr. Murdstone and his wicked sister, Jane (Violet Kemble-Cooper), David walks over a hundred miles to Dover to live with his Aunt Betsy (Edna May Oliver), who, along with Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle), a dim-wit with common sense, rear the boy. Educated in Castleberry and living in the home of Mr. Wickfield (Lewis Stone), David (Frank Lawton), now a fine young man with ambition to become a writer, marries the pretty yet childish Dora Spendow (Maureen O'Sullivan), while being secretly loved by Wickfield's daughter, Agnes (Madge Evans). During the course of his wonderful life, David is reunited with Mr. Micawber but encounters troubles along the way, especially with the sinister Uriah Heep (Roland Young).
Others members of the cast include: Lionel Barrymore (Dan Peggotty); Elsa Lanchester (Clickett); Una O'Connor (Mrs. Gummidge); John Buckler (Ham); Hugh Williams (Steerforth); Herbert Mundin (Barkis), and many others. Aside from Bartholomew, Lawton, and Edna May Oliver in standout performances, Basil Rathbone as the cold-hearted Murdstone, and W.C. Fields, one of the most likable and sincere characters associated with David, have lasting appeal. Take note that Fields does Mr. Micawber in the manner of Dickens and, in short, Micawber being W.C. Fields as if Dickens had written Micawber entirely with Fields in mind. Look quickly for Arthur Treacher as the donkey man who takes away and goes off with young David's money.
"David Copperfield," in book form, is a thick novel and involving story with many incidents and characters not included in the final film print. In movie form, David COPPERFIELD is, at times, a dark and depressing story with the boyhood portion of Copperfield's life more interesting than his adult years, but overall, in abridged form of 132 minutes, an agreeable film that would have made Charles Dickens proud. Formerly presented on commercial and cable TV in the 1990s in both colorized and shorter versions, David COPPERFIELD can be found intact in glorious black and white on Turner Classic Movies. Remade several times since 1935, there's no question that this David O. Selznick production, in short, remains the most beloved and critically acclaimed of them all. (****)
Fields is excellent in a supporting role in this movie. While some of his comedy, especially a good piece of his physical comedy is worked in early in this film, it is his acting that is good. This is Fields best dramatic part in any movie.
Freddie Bartholmew is great as young David Copperfield. Basil Rathbone (later Sherlock Holmes) is excellent in support too. George Cukor is solid in directing this film at a good pace too. Overall, I don't know if a remake of this could be any better. Check this out if you happen upon the film anyplace. Last time I saw it was on Turner Classic Movies.
I am glad I finally saw this as for years I had heard about this film & especially how good Fields is in it. When I finally saw it, everything I had heard about it was right.
Too much of the story is left out and it's assumed since David Copperfield was and is required reading in most high school literature courses that the audience would be familiar with the story. Certainly the fine group of players that George Cukor gathered all do their best and are well cast in their parts.
For the one and only time in his career W.C. Fields played someone other than W.C. Fields on screen. Borrowed from Paramount, Fields is cast as the ever expectant Mr. Micawber who proves to be David's salvation both as a child and as an adult. He also indulges in a little bit of Fields like physical comedy, please note that walk on the roof to enter his dwelling. Still in the key moments you do realize he's Micawber and not Fields in the film.
Freddie Bartholomew followed up his first noticed screen role in Anna Karenina with a winning portrayal as young David the child. I'm sure that Frank Lawton might not have gotten the part had he had to carry a whole film as an adult. Still he's not bad as the adult David for his half of the film.
Dickens's villains are as black as they come in literature and Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble Cooper as the Murdstone brother and sister are as coldblooded a pair as you'll ever find. And Roland Young as Uriah Heep is one oily insinuating dude.
Rathbone as Murdstone is young David's father who was cruel to his mother Elizabeth Allan who was a kindly, but weak soul. When David grows up he remembers what happened and when another kindly, but weak and also airheaded soul in the person of his first wife Dora comes into his life, his protective instincts are aroused and he marries her. Maureen O'Sullivan who would usually be playing upper crust types plays the simple lisping airhead, Dora. It's an unusual turn for her and a good one. Funniest moment in the film when she invites Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsy and Lennox Pawle as Mr. Dick over and the meal is a disaster.
I liked the film, liked everybody in it. But MGM and George Cukor would have been better off doing it in two parts. Still it's a classic, though don't use it as a substitute for reading the book or Cliff's Notes if you have to do a book report.
While watching this film recently, I started to remember where I had seen these folks before, and began to free-associate about some of the celebrated members of this all-star cast. The following personal observations are reflections from that viewing experience:
Violet Kemble-Cooper (Jane Murdstone)---am I the only person who thinks that she is a dead ringer for the American character actor, Mary Nash, who also tended to terrorize children (the nemesis of Shirley Temple in "Heidi" (1937) and "The Little Princess" (1939)?
Basil Rathbone ((Mr. Murdstone)---funny, but I saw Raymond Massey as a more effective villain in this part.
Roland Young ((Uriah Heep)---to the best of my recollection, this is the only downright nasty part this comic actor ever played on the screen.
Hugh Williams (Steerforth)---he gave us an even more repulsive character as Hindley in "Wuthering Heights" (1939).
Jesse Ralph (Nurse Peggotty)---one year later, she played Jack Holt's mother and Jeanette MacDonald's confidant in "San Francisco" (1936).
John Buckler (Ham Peggotty)---did you know that he was the son of actor Hugh Buckler, who delivers the moving final speech in Frank Capra's classic, "Lost Horizon" (1937)?
Edna May Oliver (Aunt Betsey)---it sure looks like this role was a reprise of her Aunt March portrayal in "Little Women" (1933) also directed by George Cukor.
Elizabeth Allan (Mrs. Copperfield)---she was seen to better advantage with less histrionics in "A Tale of Two Cities" as Lucy Manette (1935).
Jean Cadell (Mrs. Micawber)---best remembered as Henry Higgins' housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, in "Pygmalion" (1938).
Una O'Connor (Mrs. Gummidge) and Elsa Lanchester (Clickett)---these two great actors had very little to do in "David Copperfield"---but a great deal more to do in "The Informer" ((1935) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) respectively! Ms. O'Connor's hysterical Minnie also appears on display in "Bride."
What a treat to watch this group of stellar players! Their likes will never be seen again!
The cast is a montage of actors who play their respective roles in David Copperfeild with a respect for Dickens' characters and work pertaining to the classic novel. Stand-Out performers include Edna May Oliver as the feisty,yet humane, Aunt Betsy, Jessie Ralph as loyal Nurse Peggotty, Lionel Barrymore as compassionate Dan Peggoty, Una O'Conner as the effervescent Mrs Gummidge, Lennox Pawle as the eccentric Mr. Dicks, W.C Fields as the happy-go-lucky Micawber, Ronald Young as the obsequious, unctuous Uriah Heep, Maureen O' Hara as the infantile Dora, Basil Rathbone ( showing nuances of his famous role as Sherlock Holmes through his aloofness) as sadistic Mr. Murdstone, and of course not forgetting the outstanding Freddie Bartholemew as young David Copperfield. Bartholomew brought young Copperfield's sensitivity and anguish to the fore. Indeed, the sensitivity was heightened by the anguish, which turned to despair. Yet Bartholomew also illustrated that Copperfield had fortitude and determination to overcome the negative experiences which culminated in Copperfield the man. In this sense the film is inspirational to those who feel that at odds with the world..
Meanwhile, the actors who portrayed the characters of this MGM adaptation of David Coperfield have formulated the blueprint of the latter's which have become indelible portraits in the viewer's imagination. Hensefourth, W.C Fields becomes the epitome of Mr. Micawber.
What is also interesting is the way the names are apparent monikers applicable to their respective character's nature, idiosyncrasies and deeds. An example is Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone) is potentially the moniker for 'murderer' .
Murdstone's character is a representation of the then acceptable Victorian discipline. In other words such discipline was supposed to shape character, rather than to punish. But MGM are adept to convey Dickens' view of Victorian discipline as cruel, sadistic punishment, and thereby demarcating the rise of new liberal attitudes.
Credit to this adaptation of Dickens' Copperfield also goes to acclaimed director George Cuckor, especially for conveying the composite story into such a relatively short time span with great skill. This credit should be shared with Robert Kern for his adept editing skills.
In sum, this film is a credit to all involved and a great tribute to Charles Dickens the man and the writer.
The film begins with young David losing his father. As for the mother, she is a weak individual--and so it's interesting that later in the film David marries an even weaker woman. Anyway, this weak lady marries a man she thinks will make a good father (Basil Rathbone). However, Rathbone moves in with his sister and they are awful--cold and cruel. The weak mother soon dies and David is sent off to work--though he only looks to be about 8. From this point on in the film, David bounces around a lot--but fortunately for his Aunt (Edna May Oliver) and a few good friends, he manages to grow into a nice and reasonably level-headed man. In this film portion of the film, lots of very episodic-like things happen--almost like we're seeing a highlights reel of his life from age 18-35 or so. Much of it was entertaining, much of it made me feel lost trying to keep up with all the characters--some of which weren't all that interesting (such as David).
Now the film did have some excellent aspects. A few of the actors were very, very good. In particular, Edna May Oliver was (as usual) great--very entertaining--so much so I wish the movie had been a story of her life! Basil Rathbone was great--and he was always wonderful in villain roles. W.C. Fields was pretty good--especially since his role was not a comedic one. As for the low-points, the mother (Elizabeth Allan) and David's wife (Maureen O'Sullivan) were supposed to be very weak characters--but the film managed to also make them pretty annoying (particularly O'Sullivan)--a definite weakness in the film. As for Una O'Connor, she, too was weak in the film--way too whiny--and a bit too much like the characters she plays in "The Invisible Man" and "Bride of Frankenstein".
It's obvious from my review that I had very mixed feelings about this film. Perhaps it could be I just don't like Dickens all that much but part of the problem is that although the film was set in the 1800s, it came off as too antiquated and stilted at times. And, the episodic nature sure didn't help. I'd really rather see this as a mini-series--the type the Brits make so well. I'll check and see if there is one, as the basic story wasn't bad--just flawed.
During an ocean rescue scene there is no logic at all for anyone to go swimming out to rescue someone, with the wind and surf it would have been impossible to even swim out. Then when they do swim out there seems to be no reason for having done so other then to set up the melodrama. Pretty much everything in the movie is telegraphed so don't expect any surprises.
While it has its moments it seems vastly over-rated to me. Not having read the book, perhaps the book is the same way, in which case it's hardly the fault of the movie if it's just following the book. But either way, it was a disappointment. I would never watch it a second time.
I never read Dickens' novel which, if this movie is at all faithful, follows Davie Copperfield from his infancy through his young manhood. There are romantic mismatches and tragedies and a bit of comedy along the way. But maybe the most memorable character is Mr. Micawber, on whom a few comments may be lavished. First of all, what a great name, especially for a clown. Micawber is haunted by debt and is constantly on the run from his creditors while trying to support a large family. W. C. Field, dressed in formal clothes several sizes too small for him, is perfect in the part. "Godfrey Daniels!", he exclaims in one of his other films. Is that very far removed from, "Shades of Nicodemus!" in this film? When we are introduced to Micawber we see him returning home. He spots his doorway clogged with creditors and makes an abrupt about face, sneaking around until he is able to climb through a window into his flat. His family crowd around him and applaud his entry. "I have avoided the scurrilous machinations of our enemies!" he announces. "In short -- I have arrived." The line doth roll trippingly from his tongue.
His casting as Micawber was stroke of genius on somebody's part, but then all the casting is fine. The actors, the characters, and the names all suit one another. Edna May Oliver as Aunt Bitsy, sensible and no nonsense, and with that strangest of long prim faces. Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone (pronounced "Murd-stun"), the cold-hearted sadistic stepfather. Mr. Dick looks right but is more daft than amusing. Uriah Heap (great name!), the fawning and evil hypocrite, played by Roland Young. Mr. Dick, the good-natured idiot, looks exactly like Benny Hill. Davie's first wife, Maureen O'Sullivan, has an IQ that's less than her height in inches. Perhaps only the people who play Davie himself, at whatever age, are a bit bland.
The story contrasts two personality types that William James called the tough minded and the tender minded. Mr. Murdstone represents the tough minded -- discipline, authoritarianism, punishment. (How his eyes gleam as he swats his palm with the switch that is about to be applied to Davie's bottom.) Peggotty represents the opposite, the always nurturing, always loving maid who, in the end, is as helpless to change things as Mr. Murdstone. The real heroin is Aunt Bitsy, who is tough on the outside and tender on the inside, like a breaded veal cutlet at Appleby's.
A lot of subplots crop up. Maureen O'Sullivan, Tarzan's succulent and uninhibited mate of a few years earlier, is a dotty but loving wife who dies at a convenient time. (There are a couple of other deaths, all tragic because the deceased were fundamentally good people.) The clever and aristocratic Steerforth breaks up a happy engagement and runs away with a young working girl and ruins her.
Those subplots are part of what is maybe an unavoidable problem. They're squeezed into the plot so that the movie must rush along and spell things out like a Classic Comic version of Dickens' novel. Even the music supports the hasty narrative. The score is what used to be called "mickey mouse" music because it resembles that of a cartoon. If somebody drinks out of a mug, the score matches the tempo of his Adam's apple -- glug glug glug. A shot of a cute little doggie is accompanied by a dozen sobbing violins. I can't imagine how this problem could be overcome, giving the main plot and each subplot its due attention. Maybe it can't be done. The best compromise between the demands of the two-hour movie and the prolix Dickens' novel may be Lean's "Great Expectations," although I always enjoy "A Christmas Carol" too.
The problem is a real one. Just look at the whole title of this novel. "The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger." And is this the same novel that opens with the line -- "Chapter One. I am born."? I mean, you can see the difficulty.
That being said, the movie does run its course cleanly and Cukor the director doesn't linger over any scenes to the point of pain. It's a bit too much like a soap opera in some respects but I was caught up in it this time and rather enjoyed it.
After his father's early death, English boy David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew) is exposed to various hardships that test him and sort out true friends from false ones. Grown to adulthood, David (now played by Frank Lawton) pursues a career as a writer while looking out for those he loves.
The best thing "Copperfield" has going for it is a marvelous range of characters representing (with one major exception) the cream of Hollywood's second-tier players. That exception is W. C. Fields, who plays David's early friend, the forever-in-debt Mr. Micawber. Micawber is not a drinker, and he takes well enough to the boy David, but this is otherwise a role that fits Fields like a glove, and he adds distinction to the proceedings.
He's not the most distinctive actor here, nor the funniest. That would probably be Edna Mae Oliver as Betsey Trotwood, a deceptively unaffectionate woman who upbraids her expectant daughter-in-law when she dares suggest her unborn child could be male. "I have a presentiment it will be a girl," she declares, and swats the doctor who delivers news to the contrary. Yet Trotwood is far from disagreeable, as we and David come to understand.
Also wonderful are Jessie Ralph as David's warm governess and one constant, Peggotty; Basil Rathbone as the chilly stepfather Murdstone; and Lennox Pawle as the light-headed polestar of Betsey's life, Mr. Dick. Her Tarzan fan base will find Maureen O'Sullivan frightfully overdressed, but she's quite fun as the sexy and completely unserious Dora Spenlow.
For half the movie, you also have Bartholomew as David, a child actor who provides an empathetic center to the proceedings. Dickens was a writer of both muscular sentimentality and whimsy, qualities Bartholomew's precocious performance helps bring across here. But the second half of the film is not as lucky with the stick-like Lawton in the title role. Nor is it as engaging, juggling as it does several subplots in often awkward, always foreshortened fashion.
One subplot, dealing with David's friend Steerforth and his ruination of a family friend, could have been dispensed with entirely, as it has no bearing on the rest of the story. Director George Cukor seems to lose his balance by letting things get too maudlin.
"David Copperfield" can't help but be a little twee, being a product of the Victorian Age rendered here into an entertainment for the middle-aged aunties who found Cagney and Gable too uncouth. Poor Freddie spent years unsuccessfully trying to shake the "sissy" image he got stuck with here saying lines like "Ooh, mother, you do look pretty tonight!" Even W. C. has to deal with a tea-cozy aesthetic, exclaiming "Shades of Nicodemus!" instead of his usual, less-genteel "Godfrey Daniels!"
I would not recommend this "David" in place of the novel, which is emotionally far more powerful and complex. But for those who have read the book, the movie is a kind of theatrical revue, with some impressively expressionistic cinematography (David awaiting word on his mother's health as lightning flashes across his face; Murdstone's scowling) and pungent readings of familiar lines. All in all, a diverting entertainment that could have done with some pruning but has its heart in the right place.