David Copperfield (1935)
Directed by George Cukor
“Approach me, approach me, you... you... Heep of infamy! And if your head is human, I'll break it! I cast off your yoke, I defy you!”
Imagine an everlastingly red-nosed Mr. Micawber (W. C. Fields), brandishing his cane in grand style, and furious, in his theatrical way, because he’s been an unwilling accomplice in a crime, and even though he’s been a scapegrace, he has a good heart still. So he goes after the forger and blackmailer, the cringingly ’umble and ambitious Uriah Heep (Roland Young, who could do a deadpan leer as well as anybody ever did). That’s the high-mirthful climax of the film David Copperfield, a fine adaptation of the novel by Charles Dickens, the favorite, as he said, of all his children.
Chesterton once said that Dickens loved his characters too much, and that was why he sometimes let them off rather easily, bringing them round rather than making them pay for their crimes. Sometimes, I say! For Dickens was, as a friend of mine says, “in love with goodness.” And that is why his characteristic comic note is not sarcasm but mirth. And George Cukor, the director of this film filled with character actors of the first rank, not to mention W. C. Fields and the finest child actor of the age, Freddie Bartholomew, catches that mirthful air and makes sure we catch it too.
“Janet!” cries out that old battle-axe, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, “Donkeys!” And out rushes Edna Mae Oliver, upright and mannish and perfectly comical, with her broom to keep the offending creatures off her grass.
“Baked potatoes!” cries a huckster in the busy street, as Mr. Micawber saunters by, approaching his flat. “No thanks,” says Micawber as he passes by. “They’re hot!” cries the huckster. “Even so,” says Micawber. Why, you can’t even refuse a baked potato without a bit of flair, a dash of mirth. “No luxury,” says the cheerful and child-rich and out-at-heels Mrs. Micawber, as she shows David the room he’s going to rent, “but simple comfort.” And in the next shot we see W. C. Fields, cane and top hat and slippery shoes, trying to get into the flat by scrambling up on the steeply pitched gable, so as to avoid the tradesmen down below and the bills he owes them. He gets in through a window. “I have thwarted,” he says, “the machinations of our merciless enemies! In short,” he says, with the dramatic pause as he fairly tumbles to the floor, “I have arrived!”
But don’t think that the comic force of the film is in its pratfalls. The old medieval definition of comedy applies to David Copperfield, in a way that makes the novel immortal. In a comedy, said the men of the middle ages in their common-sense fashion, you go from being on the bottom of everything, to the top, from misfortune to happiness. That is most fully realized by the moral conversion that can accompany the rise. David’s youth has been shattered by the hard-hearted and cruel man who became his stepfather; he loses his mother and his home, and is sent to a grimy quarter in London to work at a bottle factory. Eventually he runs away, ragged, half starved, to find his Aunt Betsey, though she has not laid eyes on him since the day he was born, the posthumous son of her nephew David, when she had expected and indeed demanded a girl; and she too must undergo a change of heart.
It’s a story of love, and betrayal, and forgiveness; its moral center is not David, a good lad who still has much to learn, but the old sailor Mr. Peggotty (Lionel Barrymore), brother of David’s childhood nurse, who wanders over many lands to find and to bring home his niece Emily, with all wrongs forgiven. But there is no easy resolution, and a good man will die because of the sins of a bad man who, with a better family, in another life, might have been very good.
Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky couldn’t stand each other, but the two of those great Russian novelists believed that Charles Dickens was the author of the century. I think they were right, but Dickens was so beloved, so popular, we tend to take him for granted. Don’t! He is a part of our heritage; reclaim the gold. This film is an excellent place to start.
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