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USA 1935
Directed by
George Cukor
130 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3 stars

The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger

Popular child actor of the time, Freddie Bartholomew, plays Charles Dickens' eponymous hero whose father has died  while David is yet unborn. His dear mamma (Elizabeth Allan) remarries but David’s stepfather (Basil Rathbone) is cold and cruel and when she dies in childbirth he sends David to work in London. David eventually runs away to his Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) who brings him up with love but the young man has various storms to weather before he finds happiness.

Despite the considerable but understandable pruning of the original text George Cukor’s adaptation is faithful to Dickens’ novel and was much praised in its day for that. Today however its earnest sentimentality seems rather over-played with Bartholomew in his first major role demonstrating limited acting abilities and Frank Lawton who plays him as a young adult not a whole lot better. 

In our less reverential times most audiences are likely to find that the best thing about the film is W.C. Fields as Mr. Micawber. Stepping into the role after Charles Laughton pulled out Fields, dressed as  per the Phiz drawings complete with spats, ill-fitting and top hat, eschews his well-known misanthropy while doubling his characteristic anafractuosity and the outcome is incomparable (he appears to have contributed some of his own dialogue). To be fair, however, Edna May Oliver adds some appeal as David’s intimidating aunt who turns out to be a sweetie while Basil Rathbone is a top drawer villain and Violet Kemble Cooper equally good as his horrid sister, characters only Dickens could invent.

Indeed the characters are the thing with Dickens' novel  and despite the rather self-consciously precious tone the film represents them well with the arguable exception of Uriah Heep, Roland Young not really having the required unctuousness and duplicity to convince as the underhand assistant to Mr Wickfield (Lewis Stone). Maureen O'Sullivan too is not entirely satisfactory as she tends to overplay the twitishness of David’s first wife, Dora. The result is not one of the best Dickens screen adaptations but a respectable one.




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