Friday, February 17, 2012

David Copperfield (1935)

To undertake one of the English language’s most revered novels would be Hollywood’s most illustrious studio in MGM’s production of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Dickens’ epic sized, autobiographically inspired story of a boy growing into maturity in the nineteenth century supplies a tale with a large supporting cast and multiple events all the help to make young Copperfield into the man he will become. MGM utilizes its creative genius to create the world of Dickens. With the help of their production value, cast of stars as well as a great talent search for David as a child, and the natural draw of every English speaking person, MGM has taken the novel to producing a hit picture.

The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger (more commonly known by the far strenuous title of David Copperfield) is drama picture based on the Charles Dickens’ classic about a boy in nineteenth century England and his many experiences as he grows into maturity.  First we watch as a young David (Freddie Bartholomew) is raise by his single mother, then by the world after the event of her passing. Along his journey through life David meets many characters that come and go in his many tales. As he becomes a young man (now played by Frank Lawton) he becomes a person that struggles with love and the plights of those he has come to love. Filled with both moments of happiness and sorrow, David becomes a man, a striving writer, who works hard for what he rightfully deserves.

Losing his father before birth and then his mother, Clara (Elizabeth Allan), as a young boy leaves David in the care of his overbearing and unaffectionate stepfather Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone). After being forced to work in London, where David meets lifelong friend Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields), David runs away to the help of his only relative, Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver). With her aid David grows into a young man were he struggles with love and the evils of the world, more particularly the greedy ways of one Uriah Heep (Roland Young) who tries to take advantage of friend of his Mr. Wickfield (Lewis Stone). The aspiring author, David, marries a beautiful young lady, Dora (Maureen O’Sullivan) who passes away of illness very early in the marriage with David learning more about the meaning of love, but finds true love in Agnes (Madge Evans ), daughter of the Mr. Wickfield whom David saves from Heep’s ways.

The story is really too much to summarize, and it is rather foolish for me to even do so. In this version of the classic tale we are exposed to the life tale of an individual, experiencing all that he has to go through, molding him into the man he is. With good attention to detail and attempting to cut off as little of the source material as possible, MGM produces a fine recreation of the vast novel. The film eliminates a section where young David is sent off to boarding school by his stepfather, but the writers skirt the short offshoot of the story. With some creative writing and the creative vision of director George Cukor, the director of such films, up to this point, included wonderful large ensemble pictures such as Dinner at Eight and Little Women. For his masterful work on this and his many other pictures Cukor would be the hired in 1936 to direct another epic sized film, Gone with the Wind, but through the many years of production would end up leaving the picture.

For MGM David Copperfield was a labor of love as producer David O. Selznick passionately sought to produce the film as tribute to his father, a Russian immigrant turned movie producer, who learned his English by endlessly reading the Dickens novel. Studio head Louis B. Mayer would eventually back the project, provided that child star Jackie Cooper (best known for his work in Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid) would play young David. Selznick would eventually win the fight that David would be played by a native British child. After a long casting call process they would discover Freddie Bartholomew, signing the young lad to a seven year contract, effectively moving him from England to Hollywood.

For keys roles MGM, Selznick in particular, would try to cast English born actors to keep the British roots within the heart of the picture. Besides young Bartholomew, Frank Lawton as the adult David, Elizabeth Allan as his mother Clara, and Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey were all British actors that found their way to the states. Oliver was well used for her like-minded roles as an old lady, while both Lawton and Allan were rather new to Hollywood after work in England stages. Roland Young, who played the villous Heep, was a British born performer as well and a long time character actor for MGM.

Bartholomew and Fields as Young David and Micawber
The one role that most audiences and Dickens’ followers would most wish to have been played by a native Brit would have been the role of Mr. Micawber. Originally intended to be played by British star Charles Laughton, known from such features as The Sign of the Cross and The Private Life of Henry VIII, Laughton after a few days of production disliked his performance so much so that he asked to be replaced. It is told that Laughton insisted on his replacement, W.C. Fields. Fields was a self proclaimed expert of Dickens, with his father being British, he himself a huge fan of his novels. Though contracted to speak in a British accent Fields would perform the role in his own unique flair, foregoing his usual improvising by using cue cards (because he could not memorize his lines), a rare time he would keep to the script.

Playing the roles of the women that won David’s heart were two beautiful young ladies, Maureen O’Sullivan as Dora and Madge Evans as Agnes. The childlike Dora character would provide an opportunity for David to mature in the story. O’Sullivan was best known for her role as Jane in the popular Tarzan films. The more stabling partner to David is found in Agnes who was played by the former child model Madge Evans. This was far from Evans first film, but she seemed to continually fall short of playing more well rounded roles. Also appearing in the film as David’s most motherly figure in the role of Peggotty is popular old-lady character actor Jessie Ralph. 1935 was a very busy year for Ralph finding her way into many of MGM’s most popular features that year. Lewis Stone, an actor that seemed to get around a lot in MGM films, is seen in David Copperfield as Mr. Wickfield, a dear old friend for which David fights to save for the greedy Heep. As in many cases Stone’s role is small in scope of the whole film, but he always carries with himself a strong presence which was necessary when his appearance comes in so late in the feature.

Hidden within the large cast would be perhaps the film’s most notable actor in Lionel Barrymore. Hidden as a character actor in a large amount of makeup Barrymore blends into the Dickens role seamlessly, happy to blend into the background of the overall story to play a role in the overall masterpiece. He would play the humble role of Dan’l Peggotty, a small role in the large scheme of the production.

David Copperfield would get its fair share of notice in 1935. The film was one of the higher box office draws of the year with its large ensemble cast. (Boasted as a cast of 65.) AT the Academy Awards the film would be nominated for three categories: Best Assistant Director, Best Editing, and Best Picture.

This version of the well known tale would be seen as supreme film adaptation of the story. It would play on for many years around the holiday times on television stations, perhaps because of Dickens’ style being so nostalgic to the Christmas season, especially with the help of “A Christmas Carol.” It comes off as a classic large MGM picture of the early to mid 30s. It has its class and charm that creates a sense of wanting to come back and visit the story again like it is an old friend. David Copperfield is a coming-of-age or a life story where we experience the love and troubles of growing up with the main character. Though this moment in Hollywood cinema would, in my opinion, come up a little short on being as gripping compared to other production, MGM still provides the magic of the novel as well as the magic of the movies all wrapped up in this one film. All together it feels like a singular classic Hollywood film, a picture of its time. Could it be done better in later years? Perhaps, but why when it would still be compared to a fine production such as this?

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