Numerous adaptations have been made of Dickens's most autobiographical work, the best to my knowledge being the BBC miniseries of 1999 with Daniel Radcliffe, the future Harry Potter, as young David.
But for a long time, before we got long-form treatments, the 1935 black-and-white Hollywood movie with child star Freddy Bartholomew in the title role has been considered the classic version of David Copperfield—and for good reason.
MOVIE COMMENTARY:Compressed but grand Dickens
Originally released as The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger, George Cukor's movie also features Edna May Oliver as the eccentric aunt Betsey Trotwood, Basil Rathbone as the cold-hearted Murdstone, and comedian W.C. Fields, whose blustery, ne'er-do-well persona perfectly fits Mr. Micawber.
Not to mention Lionel Barrymore, Elsa Lanchester and Maureen O'Sullivan. Plus more great British actors than you can shake a cane at, brought in to play all the quirky supporting characters.
In fact, so many prestigious actors are enrolled from MGM studios that the two actors who play David are listed way down in the credits at the beginning.
When I first saw this film, I thought a weak spot was a bland Frank Lawton as the adult David, who appears almost exactly halfway through the nearly two-and-a-half-hour movie, just as he does in the novel. But a second viewing made it clear to me Lawton's performance is quite appropriate and seems flat only because he has the thankless task of following Bartholomew who shines in the first part as young David. Also Lawton's part of the narrative is just less dramatic and more conventionally romantic.
As with Dickens's story, the first part of the movie is an emotional powerhouse and young Bartholomew emotes most effectively. He's endearing without being cloying, playing like a veteran off Rathbone, Fields, and especially Oliver, who steals every scene she's in.
Director Cukor's David Copperfield is a marvel of compression. It is difficult to think of a single plot point that is missed, especially in the first half. There are actually many parts of the novel that are skipped, but when you're watching the film, you notice no seams. The creative cinematography moves the story ahead at a delirious pace, yet without seeming to rush.
The second half leaves out more narrative twists but, you know, we don't need them. In the novel Dickens is trying to move in different directions from the first half and then he has to tie up all the loose ends. He does this very well, but perhaps this film does it better for a modern, less patient audience.
After a long wait, it was finally released on DVD a few years ago. Watch it to whet your appetite—and for the pure theatrical enjoyment of it.
Some people consider this the best Dickens adaptation ever. It may be the most entertaining, except perhaps for a couple of the Christmas Carol films. But this may be the case more for those who haven't read the novel, or for those who have read the novel and just want to recall what it was about.
It's brilliant filmmaking. But if you want Dickens with all the details and nuance, you'll have to look further. Perhaps settle in with the 1999 series (next page) for the more enveloping Dickensian experience.