David Copperfield (George Cukor / U.S., 1935):

"That’s fun, dancing near the edge." Dickens has his elemental side, here’s George Cukor ahead of David Lean with howling wind for the nestling’s birth, not a chiaroscuro canvas but a frisky dash of pantomime (Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsy, nose pressed up against the glass window). Fanny and Alexander benefits grandly from the early passages, young David (Freddie Bartholomew) loses a mother (Elizabeth Allan) and gains a stepfather (Basil Rathbone), the whole of Victorian strictness rolled into one unsolvable math problem. From Murdstone to Micawber, over London's rooftops with W.C. Fields’ vaudeville grandiloquence and taste for "a tureen of cock-a-leekie soup." (Bopped on his top hat, he lets fly with a distinct Uncle Claude exclamation: "Shades of Nicodemus!") The walk to Dover is an acute Slavko Vorkapich montage to allow the boy to age before our eyes (Spielberg has it in Empire of the Sun), the reward at the end of the road is Lennox Pawle’s pixilated smile as Mr. Dick. Celebration and ruination alternate and mingle on the path into adulthood, along the way there’s the dippy bride in the opera box (Maureen O’Sullivan) and Uriah Heep (Roland Young) like a storeroom Nosferatu. "Copperfield, you perceive before you the shattered fragment of a temple once called Man." By turns a child’s horror story, a marriage comedy, a Gothic melodrama and an office intrigue, all along a writer’s education (cp. Little Women), quite the banquet. A Selznick superproduction blessed with Cukor’s speed and forthrightness, illustrations as rich as Phiz’s and a shipwreck vision as ferocious as Turner’s. (Hitchcock helps himself to much of it for Jamaica Inn and Rebecca, and there are studies in Truffaut’s L’Histoire d’Adčle H. and Polanski’s Tess, among others.) "Nil desperandum," the screen that bulges from the pleasure of Dickens, the storybook abyss ends with a wink. With Frank Lawton, Jessie Ralph, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Hugh Williams, Madge Evans, Una O’Connor, Elsa Lanchester, and Violet Kemble Cooper. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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