(directed by George Cukor, 1935)
***** (out of 5)
> If I ever saw a film that personified a bona fide 5-star classic, it is certainly this very successful dramatization of Charles Dickens’ wonderful 1850 masterwork. George Cukor has helmed a lot of fine films. This black-and-white DAVID COPPERFIELD certainly ranks among the best of the lot.
. Dickens is so ambitious in his storytelling, he painted with such a vast and intricate brush, that it’s difficult to do his work justice in a feature. These sprawling novels are much better suited for TV miniseries, like Masterpiece Theatre, where they can avoid giving the sensation that we are watching brutal mutilations of the labyrinthine plotlines and interconnected characters. Dickens wrote with great pathos and genuine sentiment- and all that is captured here. Also captured delightfully intact- his distinct and remarkable pantheon of unforgettable characters, from the diddling, mad but wise “Mr. Dick”, to the unctuous, oily “Uriah Heap” (a perfectly slimy Roland Young: the ghost of TOPPER.) Also here: Maureen O’Sullivan (Tarzan’s Jane), Lionel Barrymore at the top of his game as a salt-of-the-sea fisherman, Basil Rathbone- as despicable as ever as David’s cruel stepfather, and Elsa Lanchester in a small role. And this version of the oft-filmed story has the best performance I ever seen by W.C. Wields as the lovable language-mutilating chronic debtor Micawber.
. This warm, wise film made me smile so wide it was like to bust my face- and even with some wooden acting (mostly from the female actors who often seemed trapped in melodrama) it brought tears as well. I love films that can move a hardened cynic like me to tears! This is just a great, great film, I turned almost at once, to the original book. This title can be hard to find but look for it, and be delighted!
(directed by Simon Curtis, 1999)
***+ (out of 5)
> After seeing and falling in love with the 1935 version of this great Dickens novel, and then reading the entire 850 page book, I decided to give this BBC version a go. It runs almost an hour longer than the Hollywood take, and promised to include more of the complicated subplots found in every labyrinthine Dickens novel.
. After reading the massive tome, I was extremely curious how a screenwriter adapts such an unwieldy plot and wrestles it into a cogent whole. Certainly after reading the book, it became glaringly apparent how the 1935 film truncated virtually everything, leaving out characters and developments that covered hundreds of written pages. As with Zefferilli’s “best of” version of HAMLET- it could more accurately be called “Greatest Scenes From David Copperfield”.
. Even though there was more to feast on here, I found it mostly unsatisfying compared to its predecessor. The Masterpiece Theatre project was studded with fine actors doing their best, but somehow they did not seem to inhabit their roles the way the earlier cast had, 64 years before. Even the great Maggie Smith could not match the character fireworks of her counterpart, the absolutely perfect Edna May Oliver. Though very good indeed, Bob Hoskins as Mr. Macabwer just did not feel as iconic in the role as W.C. Fields before him. Basil Rathbone was a far superior Murdstone, Una O’Connor really got to the soul of Mrs. Gummidge without even needing to use her lines (“I’m a poor lone creatur!”). Lennox Pawle, who sucked his finger and rolled his eyes like a minstrel, playing the lunacy of Mr. Dick for all it was worth, was much more fun than the humanized Mr. Dick of the remake. And Roland Young, in particular- could not possibly be equaled as the slimy villain Uriah Heep. The great modern character actor Alun Armstrong tried his best as the rugged mariner- and he was damn good- but Lionel Barrymore was Dan Peggotry. Daniel Radcliffe (as a boy) was a much better actor than Freddy Bartholomew, yet not nearly as heartbreaking when he needed to be.
. Part of the problem: acting styles have changed dramatically since 1935, and TV is quite a different medium than film. And something about the oldschool, broader, more theatrical performances of the original seems much better suited to the bluster, heroism and buffoonery of Dickens’ outsized characters. Though the remake features more subtle and nuanced performances in every case, after reading the book, I am convinced that none of them are better, (though Bob Hoskins comes close- but then, his Macawber is given a good deal more to do than W.C. Fields was). In at least one instance, this elongated TV version improved upon the Cukor classic, in that I understood a particular character (Rosa Dartle) much, much better than I had, even after reading the novel, making the story that much richer.
. So it was a mixed bag. I’d sure like to see a serious filmmaker take on the entire novel in an extended miniseries that more fully reflects this masterpiece of literature.
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