According to film historians, W.C. Fields performed in only one film exactly according to script and as directed. That one was MGM's David Copperfield (1935) in which he co-starred with Freddie Bartholomew, who was only ten years old. Fields admired the Charles Dickens book and wanted desperately to play Mr. Micawber in the movie, so he agreed to forgo his usual ad-libs and put aside his distaste at working with child actors.
In response to the widespread criticism of his having played Micawber with a strong American accent W.C. Fields responded, "My father was an Englishman and I inherited this accent from him! Are you trying to go against nature?!".
Charles Laughton was originally cast as Micawber, but resigned from the role after two days of shooting. It was said at the time that "he looked as though he were about to molest the child." Despite this, Laughton's wife Elsa Lanchester was retained for the role of Micawber's servant Clickett although her part was cut down considerably in the editing room.
W.C. Fields' contract included a clause in which it was specified that he speak with a British accent. He didn't - and this may have been because he had difficulty memorizing Charles Laughton's dialogue and eventually had to read his lines off cue cards. Despite much controversy in the press about Micawber having a strong American accent, the director said he felt Fields was "born to play the part".
The book by Charles Dickens was published under the title "The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery" (which he never meant to be published on any account).
Freddie Bartholomew was discovered after an extensive casting search in both the US and the UK. Louis B. Mayer was pushing hard for his young star, Jackie Cooper, but David O. Selznick was determined to cast someone less American. Bartholomew traveled to America with his aunt who - some say - effectively kidnapped him and took him to America against his parents' wishes.
W. H. Henry, who had taken the role of Eustace McGargle in the London version of POPPY, desperately wanted the role of Mr. Micawber, but his wife was deathly ill, and he would not leave her bedside. He recommended that W.C. Fields be given the role, and the studio eventually complied. Other reports say that it was Charles Laughton who recommended Fields for the role, because he did not feel that he was giving a good performance as Micawber. Laughton had similar feelings while he was playing the title role of I, Claudius (1937).
David O. Selznick always wanted to make a film of his favorite book. He cherished the novel as his emigrant film distributor father used it to help him learn English when he first arrived in the United States.
W.C. Fields shot his scenes in a fortnight. This is the only film he made in which he did not ad lib the script though some of his character's physical actions were improvised by the actor during filming.
David O. Selznick immediately met opposition about making the film from his father-in-law and studio head, Louis B. Mayer. He distrusted classics as they invariably disappointed purists and bored those who hadn't read the original source material. After browbeating Mayer for over a year, finally he relented and granted Selznick a $1 million budget to make the film.