And it certainly has a cast to die for: Newcomer Freddie Bartholomew in the title role, Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsey, Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone, Lionel Barrymore as Peggotty, Elsa Lanchester as Clickett, Roland Young as Uriah Heep and comic icon W.C. Fields as Micawber.
But the individual most responsible for the success of the film was none of the above. Rather, it was David O. Selznick, one of the few Hollywood producers whose name above the title was as important (if not more so) than those of his director and stars.
In 1934 Selznick was running the prestige production arm of MGM, the studio headed by his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer. Selznick believed that the great literary classics should be mined for their cinematic potential. In this he was encouraged by RKO’s 1933 success with the Katharine Hepburn version of Little Women.
His idea was to produce a film based on Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. That was the book Selznick’s immigrant father had read over and over in an effort to learn and improve his grasp of English. The producer loved the novel and felt he knew the story by heart.
Not everyone was sure this was a good idea. It was pointed out that Copperfield would be expensive, requiring a huge cast of well-known actors and many elaborate sets. Moreover, the novel was highly episodic (like most of Dickens’ novels, it was first printed in installments in a newspaper) and had a meandering plot.
Boss-man Mayer could get enthusiastic about the project only when he envisioned American child star Jackie Cooper in the title role. An appalled Selznick countered that only an English boy could play so quintessentially English a character, and so headed off to England to find the perfect David.
Ironically, he discovered Freddie Bartholomew not in England but back in New York, where the English lad was vacationing with his parents. They’d heard of the search for a fresh-faced David and sent their son to audition. That was the beginning of an acting career that spanned 20 years and resulted in landmarks like Anna Karenina, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Devil Is A Sissy, Captains Courageous and Kidnapped.
Initially Charles Laughton was cast as Micawber. But Laughton’s personality was so “innately sinister and self-pitying,” according to Selznick biographer David Thomson , that “there were those who saw the first dailies and got the feeling Laughton’s Micawber might molest Freddie’s David.”
Not feeling the love and insecure about his suitability for the part, Laughton withdrew. Selznick replaced him with former vaudeville comic W.C. Fields.
Fields had never appeared in a dramatic picture and there were fears that he might play his own comic self. Selznick and Cukor insisted that the boozy ham play it straight, vetoing Fields’ suggestion that Micawber liven things up with a juggling act.
Another problem was that Fields – one of the few Americans among the principal players – couldn’t muster a passable English accent. Selznick finally decided that Fields’ trademark nasal drawl would have to do.
“My father was an Englishman and I got this accent from him,” Fields said in his own defense. “Are you trying to go against nature?”
So efficient was Selznick’s operation that David Copperfield was filmed and ready for release in just a few months. Today the same film would likely eat up nearly two years.
The first cut of film ran 2 1/2 hours and was met with indifference from a preview audience. It was too long, audience members complained, and so Selznick was faced with the unenviable task of whittling away at his cinematic baby.
But so cleverly interwoven were Dickens’ various plot threads that Selznick reluctantly concluded that the only way to trim the film was to eliminate the character of Peggotty. In doing so he could trim a 12-reel feature to just 10 reels.
A preview screening of the shortened version was greeted with huge applause. But in the theater lobby afterward Selznick overheard a group of schoolteachers discussing the movie. He asked what they’d thought of it.
They were enthusiastic but demanded to know “how you could make a movie of David Copperfield and elminate Peggotty”?
“Next time you see the picture he’ll be back in,” Selznick replied. In fact, he replaced nearly 15 minutes of Barrymore’s performance.
The lesson, he later said, was that “It doesn’t matter how long it is, as long as it’s good.”
David Thomson calls David Copperfield “the first film that identifies the terrible beauty of a child’s apprehensions and the way they burn unceasingly through duller adulthood. David Selznick never did anything better and he would be a success if he had done nothing else.”
Other films in the series “Not Just for Christmas: Charles Dickens at 200”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- February 6: Nicholas Nickleby (2002) Rated PG
- February 13: A Tale of Two Cities (1935) Not Rated
- February 20: David Copperfield (1935) Not Rated
- February 27: Great Expectations (1946) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.