Monday, June 11, 2012

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

            A few weeks ago, thanks to the DVD player, I sat down and killed just over two-and-a-half hours watching the 1935 black-and-white MGM version of David Copperfield.

            The film was a huge box-office hit 77 years ago, and generally gets favourable mention in the film guides.

            All critics are agreed that the very best old movie versions of Dickens were the British ones (David Lean’s 1940s films of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist are still pretty unbeatable). But the 1935 David Copperfield, along with MGM’s 1936 version of A Tale of Two Cities (starring Ronald Colman), are generally regarded as the best that Old Hollywood ever did with Dickens.

            In his Film Guide, Leslie Halliwell gives it his top four-star rating, and quotes the documentarist Basil Wright as saying it has “perhaps the finest casting of all time”.

            Anyway, there I was killing over two-and-a-half hours watching it.

            I enjoyed Edna May Oliver’s turn as that friendly dragon Betsy Trotwood – quite the best thing in the film. I thought Roland Young was suitably oily, but not quite as nasty as he could have been, as Uriah Heep. Maureen O’Sullivan was appropriately pretty and brainless as David’s first wife Dora; and Madge Evans appropriately pretty and forgettable as David’s second wife Agnes.

            The man who got the highest billing in the credits, W.C.Fields, simply acted the role of W.C.Fields rather than the role of Mr Micawber which he had been assigned. He didn’t even attempt an English accent. I wool-gathered enough to wonder what Fields really thought of the child actor Freddie Bartholomew, playing David Copperfield as a child. The childhood scenes take up at least half of this movie, Bartholomew gets to cry a lot and the lachrymose moments (often lacking the boisterous humour attached to them in the original novel) are underscored with sugary music and soft focus and Batholomew’s plummy voice.

            Fields, the man who said “Fried!” when asked how he liked children, might have had a hard time relating to the kid.

            I could see this was, in terms of 1930s movie-making, both an expensive and a dutifully-faithful adaptation of the novel. (The camp popular novelist Hugh Walpole did the initial adaptation, and was flattered enough by being in Hollywood to appear in one shot as a vicar preaching a sermon.) I could see that every role had been cast with care and sometimes typecast (who but Basil Rathbone could possibly play Mr Murdstone?). If the grown David (played by Frank Lawton) was a complete blank, that is exactly what he is in the novel too. He was compensated for by Hugh Williams’ swinish incarnation of Steerforth. Yet I could also see that some character-actors (Elsa Lanchester, Una O’Connor) were thrown away on roles that consisted of about two lines of dialogue.

            This is what happens when a movie attempts to account dutifully for all the main events in a long, episodic novel, and this is where my problems with this movie begin.

            For at a certain point I - usually a sucker for very old movies and fully appreciative of their aesthetic conventions - found this David Copperfield a crashing bore.

            What was wrong with it?

            I found I was not following the story, not emotionally involved with the characters, and not interested in how things turned out for them. Instead I was watching one animated tableau after another – David in the blacking factory; David on the road to Dover; David being protected by Betsy Trotwood etc. – and ticking them off according to my memory of the novel. And this is what the scriptwriters were doing too. The film was not a drama. It was a waxworks show which happened to be in motion, cherry-picking and illustrating the “best bits” of the novel. Tableaux vivants literally.

            Now this is not intended as a rude criticism of this particular movie. Rather, it is indicative of what happens when 800-odd pages of text get compressed into one feature film – and even two-and-a-half hours is short for so much text. The best Dickens films (the David Lean ones, for example) work with more compressed and focused plots than the rambling plot of David Copperfield. Many other doorstopper novels have suffered exactly the same fate when transferred to film.

            I have seen two or three really good television serial adaptations of David Copperfield, and this probably is the best medium to which the novel can be adapted. It reminds us that Dickens wrote his novels as part-serials, after all, and further reminds us that there has to be a certain leisureliness in the way the better ones are presented.

            One-off film versions of long episodic novels are just a series of illustrations.

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