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  David Copperfield Something Will Turn UpBuy this film here.
Year: 1935
Director: George Cukor
Stars: Freddie Bartholomew, Frank Lawton, W.C. Fields, Lionel Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Elizabeth Allan, Jessie Ralph, Basil Rathbone, Roland Young, Madge Evans, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lennox Pawle, Lewis Stone, Herbert Mundin, Hugh Williams, Elsa Lanchester
Genre: Drama
Rating:  7 (from 2 votes)
Review: In Victorian England, there was a young widow named Clara Copperfield (Elizabeth Allan) who was pregnant by her late husband, and distraught about what she could possibly do to get by now with no one to support her. Luckily, she had the common sense of her Aunt Betsey Trotwood (Edna May Oliver) who was convinced the baby would be a girl and therefore was keen to bring the child up; she helped Clara right up to the birth, that was until she discovered it was a boy, whereupon she exited the house as fast as possible. He was named David (Freddie Bartholomew), and lived with his mother until a new man entered her life...

At the time this was released, it immediately became the definitive adaptation of Charles Dickens, lavished with praise and a huge success in its day across the world. There were many reasons for that, but the main one everyone agreed upon was its casting, with every actor seemingly born to play the roles they were given, although one major one, Mr Micawber, proved more difficult to fill than others. Famously Charles Laughton was the star who began filming but left after a short while, feeling a crisis of confidence probably not helped by humorous comments that he was coming across less kindly and more like he was about to molest poor David. Therefore, for whatever reason, W.C. Fields was drafted in.

Fields was already a big comedy star, but the occasional trend for putting comedians in straight dramatic roles had not really taken off, and his presence met with some resistance - he's not even doing the accent, they would grumble. For the performer himself he was about as unsteady as Laughton had been in his confidence, relying on drink and suggesting that Micawber could do a spot of juggling in one scene then when told that Dickens hadn't mentioned any such thing in the book, Fields replied he probably forgot. But no matter what reservations there were at the time, watching this now you can see he's a definite highlight, rising above the stunt casting it might have been to offer a warm and human side to his usual personality.

You're even convinced Fields liked Bartholomew, which was quite some feat for the notoriously child-resistant comic. But really, while there were more complaints that the source had been edited down too far to create a sort of greatest hits of the Dickens book, there was such a wealth of excellent character acting here that it was enough to appreciate them getting their teeth into some wonderful roles and look forward to seeing who would be arriving next. Basil Rathbone was perfectly boo-hiss as David's stepfather, the man who beats him when the boy's grasp of mathematics fails him at a moment of stress, Lionel Barrymore was a pipe stem-chewing sea dog, Roland Young was the unctuous Uriah Heep, and so on, even with the less familiar to modern eyes shining.

It was all here, the laughter, the thrills, the tears - quite a lot of tears, actually, and mostly flowing from the eyes of Freddie, here becoming sort of the male, English Shirley Temple in the first of a run of star performances the Depression audiences loved. Indeed, this first half is as good as it could possibly be, with director George Cukor showing early signs of his mastery of bringing out the best in his cast, all the more impressive for there being so many of them to guide, and the art direction doing a lot of the work of bringing the period to life. It's just in the second half, when David is an adult played by Frank Lawton, that the assuredness of the quality takes a dip - not drastically, but you can see why missing out a big section prevents us from growing up with David so that Lawton comes across like a different person rather than his younger self maturing. Still, there were the pleasures of more thespianism to appreciate, though what David saw in the flighty Dora (Maureen O'Sullivan nicely cast) is a mystery.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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