Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was the second of eight children of a man imprisoned for debt in 19th century England, and as a child he himself worked in a factory to help support his family. The world of his fiction is one where great kindness and great cruelty – and great indifference – all exist, and this sympathy made his books phenomenally popular in his time and since. David Copperfield was his most autobiographical, and favorite, novel, and was published in installments, like all of his novels, from May 1849 to December 1850. In 1867 Dickens wrote, “But, like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is DAVID COPPERFIELD”.
David Selznick was a producer at MGM in 1934 and he originally conceived David Copperfield as two pictures, to be entirely filmed in England. Seven scenarios were reportedly written and discarded before one by writer Howard Estabrook was chosen. George Cukor directed, and this film was almost entirely made in California. Cukor wrote, “Re-creating Dickens’ characters, making them slightly grotesque, at times caricature, yet completely human… it was a difficult thing, making these people funny and frightening at the same time. You achieve it partly by the casting but also by deciding on the style of the playing.” 161,000 people participated in a newspaper contest to select the ideal film actors to cast in the film, none of whom ended up in the roles selected, although Elizabeth Allan, who was selected in the contest as Dora, did play David Copperfield’s mother in the picture. The film was made from September to November 1934 and was previewed in a short version (100 minutes) and a long version (133 minutes). Despite Louis B. Mayer’s preference for the short version as the result of preview responses, Selznick held out for the long version, which was released in January, 1935 and which we will see tonight.
Dolly Tree did the costumes, using L. and H. Nathan, a London costuming company that had provided the costumes, under Dickens’ supervision, for the drawings by Phiz that had accompanied the original novel when it was published as a serial in 1849 and 1850. Those drawings were also used as a source for the set and production design. Assistant director Joseph Newman and film editor Robert J. Kern both received Oscar nominations for their work, and the movie was nominated for best picture. It was among the top ten grossing films of 1935. MGM, as a studio, was the wealthiest. Its production values – camera work, sets and costumes – were always first rate. This production – a prestige release by this studio, exhibits the most professional type of filmmaking that could be achieved in 1934.
The ensemble cast – a Dickens novel always features an ensemble cast because of the broad range of characters—features many character actors and actresses, most British. The cast includes W.C. Fields (who reportedly had a hard time refraining from ad libbing through his role), Lionel Barrymore, and also Maureen O’Sullivan, Edna May Oliver, Lewis Stone, Roland Young, Basil Rathbone, Elsa Lanchester, Jean Cadell, Jessie Ralph, Una O’Connor, and many other memorable faces from the films of that era. Three hundred children were interviewed for the roles of David as a child and little Em’ly, but the studio found few with the necessary accent skills. The Irish-born Freddie Bartholomew, who had stage experience in England, was chosen to play David as a child, and later had a significant career as a child star during the 1930s. The film critic David Thomson has written, “Dickens guessed something of profound importance: that in studying adults and passing from fear to equality, we achieve adulthood. And that is why, onscreen, Dickens needs his young characters, who guide our reaction to the larger world. It follows that Freddie Bartholomew is not just perfect as David – he is the eyepiece for the movie. Alas, when David becomes grown up (Frank Lawton) and makes mistakes with the women in his life, the film falters.” I hope you enjoy the world of Charles Dickens, as visualized by George Cukor, David Selznick, MGM and this very special cast in 1934, in David Copperfield tonight.