Since the dawn of movies, Charles Dickens stories and novels had been staple sources for films. The 1930s were a particularly rich time for "Boz" adaptations. In the few years previous to DAVID COPPERFIELD, both Britain and Hollywood had raided the Dickens bookshelf for OLIVER TWIST (1933), GREAT EXPECTATIONS and THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP (both 1934), and immediately following DAVID COPPERFIELD were productions of A TALE OF TWO CITIES and SCROOGE. In 1935, it was expected that everybody who came to see DAVID COPPERFIELD the movie had already read David Copperfield the novel, even though it was originally published 85 years previously. Dickens was and is a perennially popular author and David Copperfield was most likely required reading for most school children.
Which explains why, when I had seen this film previously before reading the book, I found it rambling and a bit dull, and after I had read it, I had a much more positive reaction. Had I been around in 1935, I would have been expected to fill in the details between scenes from my own memories of the novel. This is exactly what I did watching it three weeks after I had finally tacked Dickens 700-plus page epic. The book cannot be captured in a mere two hours without major cutting of subplots and characters, and even with such major cutting, there is too much to cover to properly serve it all. The ultimately tragic character of Steerforth, David's school chum, is well-established in the book whereas in the movie, he comes out of nowhere, as we never get to see even a single day of Master Copperfield's school days. I also regret the loss of the character Trotters, the plodding, likable friend of David's who comes through for him in the end in many ways. In the book he is to David was Ron Weasley is to Harry Potter. Other major characters such as Agnes Wickfield are barely given the time they deserve, given their importance to the story's climax. Most damaging, some of the harsh conditions of David's young life (the beatings at home and school, the endless drudgery at his first job) are either severely reduced or not shown at all, sanitizing the story in a similar but less-ridiculous fashion as MGM would the later SCROOGE (1935).
Yet since it was first released, DAVID COPPERFIELD has been hailed as one of the finest film adaptations of a novel ever made, and as long as we keep that qualifier "one of the finest", I have little argument. For the cast alone, it ranks with the best of the best. Perhaps not every role is properly filled, but you could not find a finer Aunt Betsey than Edna May Oliver (okay, Maggie Smith matches her in the 2001 BBC adaptation), a more perfect Wilkins McCawber than W. C. Fields (a huge Dickens fan himself) or a slimier Uriah Heep than Roland Young. Basil Rathbone is near-perfect as the child/woman hating Mr. Murdstone, who becomes young David's step-father, and Violet Kemble Cooper as Murdstone's equally joyless sister plays her part as if she had literally stepped out of the Dickens novel and onto the screen.
Over the years, Fields has received the lion's share of praise, and he is wonderful in the part of the affable Wilkins McCawber (forever in debt but forever hopeful), but he is just one of many able and talented performers who help bring the story to life. Special praise should be given to young Freddie Bartholomew as David the boy. While Frank Lawton does a fine job as David the man, it is the younger Bartholomew who truly captures the character of David. It was his first American film and he would go on to be the child star of other Hollywood book adaptations such as ANNA KARENINA, CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS and KIDNAPPED.
Another hour or judicious cutting of one or two more subplots would have helped strengthen the film - the Steerforth story is ultimately pointless and unnecessary without the proper buildup of the character and his importance to David - but DAVID COPPERFIELD still stands as one of the best screen adaptations of a Dickens novel to come from Hollywood, even if it may be necessary to have read the book to fully appreciate it. - JB
ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON
"In the aggregate I judge you to be a highly distasteful collection. And to detail: cowardly, uncouth, and deserving of merciless chastisement. You'll oblige me by removing your unsavory persons from my immediate vicinity. In short: GET OUT!"