Reading the title and forgetting the year, some people may think this film has to do with the cheesy magician. Long before magic Davey was levitating Ferraris, Charles Dickens thought up a character very dear and near his heart and named him David Copperfield. Though the film adaptation directed by George Cukor doesn’t include all the characters and incidents from the novel, it captures the essence of Dickens’ work.
Before David was even born, he destined to face hardship. His father died while he was still in the womb, leaving just his young mother (Elizabeth Allan) and aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) to fend for him. But Betsey only plans to stick around if the baby is a girl, and she storms out with the wind when David emerges otherwise. Still, young David (Freddie Bartholomew) becomes a healthy, well mannered boy who loves his mother dearly. When his mother marries the harsh Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone), David’s happy childhood is turned upside-down. He is beaten for not knowing his studies and locked in a tiny unkept room away from his mother and dear nurse, Peggotty (Jessie Ralph). Then his mother dies in childbirth and Murdstone sends him to work and fend for himself in London. After meeting a few good characters, but finding no happiness there, David makes a long journey to Dover to find his aunt Betsey.
When poor little David shows up at her door worn and tired from the road, she finally shows some affection for him. She and Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle) nurse clean the boy up and send him to a good school, where he emerges a smart young man ready to write his first book. But this smart, well rounded young man version of David (Frank Lawton) still has many trials in his life to fight.
To fit in as much of the novel as possible, the film moves at a rather quick pace. To me, it felt like David had just arrived in London when he left and suddenly he was an adult. This rapid pace in the narrative may leave some viewers in a whirlwind, but it is not so much that those with no knowledge of the novel will be completely lost.
What the film does best is establish all these interesting characters. From the moment we see Aunt Betsey marching through the raging wind, we can see she’s a tough old bird. We don’t have to see Murdstone whip David before we despise him. And though Mr. Dick is a very minor character, he is most memorable with his giddy expressions and giant kite flying scene.
Though the film is done well and fans of Dickens may really enjoy it, I found it rather boring. Perhaps it was quickly moving narrative that prevented me from forming much attachment to any of the characters. Whatever the case, I would not completely dismiss the film, but would suggest reading the novel first.
“Please God, may I have a home now?”