David Copperfield (1935): Cukor’s Oscar-Nominated Dickens Tale

Producer David O. Selznick believed that novels that had withstood the test of time were a welcome change from Hollywood’s conventional formulas. Selznick decided to push for an adaptation of Dickens’s David Copperfield. Though no one at MGM was silly enough to suggest modernizing the Dickens masterpiece, he encountered the same kind of opposition he had initially experienced at RKO over Little Women.

Selznick’s contract stipulated that he had control over story selection, but MGM’s top brass was adamantly opposed to highbrow literary adaptations, claiming they were expensive and risky in terms box office appeal. In a February l934 memo to the Loew’s executives, Selznick noted that the public was tired of the hackneyed and standardized movies that Hollywood was grinding out with workmanlike efficiency. Realizing that the classics had to be carefully handled, Selznick emphasized there were few producers with sufficient understanding and few directors with sufficient taste and talent to transcribe them with an “accuracy of spirit and mood.” He finally persuaded the studio heads that he had the understanding, and Cukor had the taste and talent to tackle David Copperfield.

Bringing Dickens to the screen would ultimately change MGM’s attitude toward literary classics. The studio’s last and greatest release in 1935, David Copperfield was both an artistic success and a financial bonanza–despite its huge price tag.

With its 69-day shooting schedule, the movie cost over $1 million, but Cukor made a lot of money–his directorial fee amounted to $113,585. Adapting such monumental novel, with so many characters, was not an easy task.

Howard Estabrook worked on the scenario’s structure, but Cukor thought that Hugh Walpole, the English novelist, would do a better job with the dialogue. Walpole didn’t know anything about screenwriting, but he understood Dickens and the tone that was needed. His contribution was not in dramatic terms, but in giving the characters their authentic voices and right sound.

Selznick suggested at one point to make two pictures out of David Copperfield, which would cost only a hundred thousand dollars more than the cost of one picture. The idea was to produce two films that, while interrelated, would also be complete in themselves. He also toyed with the notion of exhibiting the two films on successive weeks, an idea that was dropped for practical reasons.

David Copperfield enjoyed a great barrage of advertising. “America makes a British epic,” read the headline of one newspaper. Originally, the movie was going to be made with an entirely British cast. Selznick and Cukor were to prepare the script in Hollywood, then cast and shoot it entirely in England. Louis B. supported the idea, hoping it would boost the film’s grosses in Britain and also revitalize MGM’s British company.

Despite honorable intentions, David Copperfield was not destined to be shot in London. The alternative was to make the film in Hollywood, but still use English actors. Cukor was lucky there were many good British actors in Hollywood at the time. Thus, Elsa Lanchester was cast as Clickett, Roland Young as Uriah Heep, and Basil Rathbone as Mr. Murdstone.

Early on, Cukor decided that Charles Laughton would be a perfect Micawber. Having just won an Oscar for The Private Lives of Henry VIII, Laughton would be the most prestigious name in the large cast. But the capricious actor was not very interested and had to be persuaded to take the role. Selznick, too, thought Laughton was a good choice, and was willing to do whatever necessary to sign him. Laughton finally agreed to play Micawber, but then a new set of problems arose for the actor, who had always been insecure.

Initially, Laughton and Cukor got on very well, despite Cukor’s fears of encountering the actor’s alleged prejudice against Jews. Laughton’s physical embodiment of the character was right down to the meticulous makeup of his own devising. But Laughton’s insecurity was too close to the surface–and he began exhibiting strange habits on the set. Deep down, Laughton felt he wasn’t right, and soon Cukor himself sensed he lacked the geniality the part called for. After one week, Laughton withdrew from the picture–Cukor gave a sigh of relief.

W. C. Fields

Selznick went to Paramount and made hasty arrangements to borrow W. C. Fields, who as anticipated, jumped at the chance of playing Micawber. Physically, he wasn’t right, but his spirit was ideal. “This is the first time in my life I ever played a real ‘character’ part,” Fields told the press, “I’ve always gone over my dialogue and made it fit my style.”

Some cast members were worried about Fields “stealing” the film, but Cukor reassured them there was nothing to worry about. “He dreamed up nothing,” Cukor later said, “For the first time in his career, he followed the script because of his admiration for Dickens.” Cukor thought Fields was born to play Micawber, it was that rare combination of personality and role meshing perfectly. “I’ve been playing Micawber all my life,” the actor said, “under a lot of different names, and never knew it.”

Finding an actor to play the young David Copperfield was the major problem. Louis B. wanted to cast Jackie Cooper, whom he held in great affection after his performance as Wallace Beery’s son in The Champ. Cooper was a star and an appealing child, but Cukor shuddered at the thought of the snub-nosed American youngster as David.  Selznick and Cukor dug in their heels, telling Louis B. that they wouldn’t cast an American to play such a famous and distinctly English character.

An extensive search spread out on both sides of the Atlantic. Maureen O’Sullivan, who played Dora, recalled that her husband-to-be, director John Farrow, was sent to scout for a young actor to play Copperfield. They went to Canada and London, but didn’t turn up anybody.

Freddie Bartholomew

On their trip to England, Cukor and Selznick came upon an attractive kid, Freddie Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s qualities–his stage experience, charm, and distinctly English speech manner–made him a strong possibility. But because there were problems with his parents, the search continued. Bartholomew’s father gave interviews to the press, implying that the boy had already been hired, falsely putting the studio in the awkward position of violating English law against exportation of children for labor.

Climaxing an eight-month search, the eventual casting of Bartholomew was highly publicized. The boy was brought to Hollywood with his aunt, but problems with his father continued. A drunken, vindictive man, Mr. Bartholomew resented the fact that the aunt was earning 50 dollars a week to look after him.

Bartholomew gave a good performance, except for an air of British schoolboy noblesse oblige and difficulty in crying–two problems Cukor dealt with effectively. By that time, Cukor had developed his own rules about literary adaptations. Getting to the essence of the original should determine the picture’s style. But, as with Little Women, this involved accepting the weaknesses of the source material.

Cukor knew there was too much melodrama in David Copperfield, and that dramatically, the story’s resolution was unsatisfactory. When people chided him that the film’s second half was not as good as the first, he would say, “Well, the second volume of the novel is not as good as the first.” Cukor considered it a pity that Copperfield grew up to be such a “bore,” a “typical Victorian.” But the second part did not actually let the picture down. David Copperfield was overall charming, because it had vitality and its feeling was right.

Cukor understood that the “essence” of Dickens was in the characters, particularly the secondary characters. His challenge was to bring these characters to life, make them slightly grotesque yet human, funny yet frightening. Cukor made sure that his eccentric performers perform as an ensemble: Working two dozen principals into a unified cast, Cukor saw to it that no one, especially Fields, slipped into his routine act.

Fields, in fact, was endearing to work with; his suggestions and ad-libs were sound and always in character. In a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, he asked Cukor if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When Micawber got agitated, Fields dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. In another scene, sitting on a high stool, he asked for a wastepaper basket so that he could get his feet stuck in it. He found Fields cooperative and dignified–a great complement from Cukor.

If the acting in David Copperfield and its mood were right, the art direction was uneven and inconsistent, hovering between realism and stylization. Cukor held that the more artificial the film, the better it would be–he wanted everything to be more stylized, like the shipwreck scene. But under pressure from MGM, the picture ended up less coherent and more compromising than Little Women.

The film that Selznick delivered had a running-time of 2 hours and 13 minutes, too long by standards of the day. Nicholas M. Schenck, president of Loew’s (MGM’s parent company) had serious misgivings about the final cut, reproaching Selznick for letting the film run so long and for not better organizing it. “How long can it be” Schenck pleaded. “How long is it good Selznick replied. Schenck had to concede that it was good all the way through.

A huge hit, David Copperfield grossed nearly $3 million in its 86-week-run, doing exceptional business abroad. Selznick was right in his prediction that the British would respond well; the Commonwealth countries contributed 25 percent of the film’s grosses. The film was nominated for three Oscars, including Best Picture, but lost in all categories. Cukor was hurt–for some mysterious reason, he failed to receive a directorial nomination.

The reaction of Cukor’s peers in Hollywood was fantastic. It was the “most magnificent” picture Zane Grey, the noted Westerns’ writer, has seen. “People who have wanted clean pictures have been wonderfully vindicated.” And Joseph Breen, of the Production Code Administration, who Cukor would often come into conflict in the future, noted that he had not seen a picture in a long time that appealed to him more than David Copperfield.

For the film’s British premiere, a Copperfield luncheon was organized, with celebrities like Hugh Walpole, Sir Frederick Macmillan, J.B. Priestly, Frank Lawton (who played the mature Copperfield), and two of Dickens’ granddaughters in attendance. The British press came ready to attack the film, but instead everyone was charmed by what they saw on screen.

Walpole, who also played the parson in the film, praised David Copperfield, particularly its editing, which was also nominated for an Oscar. Walpole very much wanted to work with Cukor again, and tried to find the right English classic for them to tackle. Though another literary friendship began, they never managed another collaboration. Years later, Walpole dedicated a collection of his stories to Cukor with a most personal inscription.

Cukor’s David Copperfield is arguably the purest Dickens film ever made–he could never bring himself to see the new version filmed in London. When the latter came out, in l1970, most people acknowledged how right Cukor was. The new version, Cukor said after seeing it years later, “unfortunately zeroed in on the depressing parts and they didn’t get the virtues.” “To get the strength of a movie,” he repeated, “you’ve got to do the weaknesses.” Refusing to “correct” Dickens, Cukor just went with the vitality of the book.

Thirty years later, Henri Langlois, the founder of the French Cinematheque, reviewed David Copperfield in a perceptive critique. Cukor was touched by the way a director’s work was treated in France. And while he didn’t mean to sound disloyal to Hollywood, he had to concede that American directors are not given the “thoughtful consideration and regard” that directors are given abroad.