David Copperfield: Cukor, Laughton, and W.C. Fields

David O. Selznick, who had taste for great literature, had a habit of keeping lists of possible literary classics he might want to film. Novels, which had withstood the test of time, he believed, 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.

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.

Once it was decided to shoot in England, Cukor became impatient, demanding to know “when the hell,” they were leaving. Here was his great opportunity to go to London, the world’s theater capital, which he had been wanting to see–but either lacked the time or money to do so.

On May 8, l934, Selznick, Cukor and Estabrook arrived in London to look for authentic types and scout locations. Cukor got to meet the British literary elite–Hugh Walpole, J.B. Priestley–at a special lunch for the filmmakers. Selznick told reporters that an American Micawber or Dan Peggotty “simply won’t do”–“We won’t dare, but anyway, we don’t want.”

In London, Cukor got in touch with the head of the Charles Dickens Society, who told him about every place associated with the novel. He carefully went all over the ground traveled by the protagonist, but in the end, only one second-unit shot, a charming view of David walking to Canterbury, was used.

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.

Working with Charles Laughton

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. “If Charles had his way,” wrote his wife Elsa Lanchester, “he never would have acted at all, because in every part he ever played, after the first two or three days’ work, he tried to get out of the picture.” On the set of David Copperfield, the situation was worse than ever–Laughton lost his confidence. He considered Micawber a ham actor who was always “on”–if he were to play a ham, he would have to make his own comments on the character. But Dickens’ portrayal was so complete that Laughton felt he had nothing to add.

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. Laughton needed offstage noises to get himself into the mood, and he was the first actor Cukor encountered who prepared himself for a laughing entrance by walking around making “ha-ha” sounds for hours. 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.

Brilliant 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.”

So many unfavorable stories circulated about Fields that Cukor prepared himself for displays of capricious behavior. But they never happened. Even Fields’ alleged trademark–hatred for children–was not in evidence. Fields treated the 11-year-old Bartholomew with kindness and respect. They spent some time together; Bartholomew became like Fields’ own son.

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.

To simulate the White Cliffs of Dover, Cukor used locations around Malibu. When he eventually saw the real cliffs, he said he preferred his own: “Our cliffs were better, whiter and cliffier.” “A director creates things artistically,” he quipped, “and then he finds them happening in real life.” As usual, Cukor found the research process stimulating, there were always surprises, and the result was never quite as expected. “When you really look at things, you reeducate your eyes and your sensibilities.”

Cukor regarded filmmaking as a process of self-education. “Every picture is an education to me,” he later said, “Most of the education I have is from preparing pictures. I become sort of a half-assed expert on certain things. In a very profound way, I do a great deal of research purely for myself, and some of it sticks.”

Cukor torturing actresses

David Copperfield launched another long-enduring friendship, this one with Maureen O’Sullivan. According to the actress, Cukor didn’t think she was very good in the ingenue role. “I didn’t quite understand what he wanted and I felt I wasn’t doing it right,” she confessed. O’Sullivan and Cukor did not see eye to eye about Dora. “I went for hair-dressing tests, and I came back to the set to show George my hairdo, which was exactly the same as the one I’d worn in The Barretts of Wimpole Street. I’d rather fancied myself in that, and had pictured Dora as being a more fiery character, which was opposed to George’s notion. George was very disappointed. ‘Oh, he said, ‘I thought you were going to come up with a new hairdo.'”

Cukor was clearly in control of her characterization. “George told you explicitly what line reading he wanted,” she said, “He was very adamant about exactly what he wished you to do, where to stand, how to move. He wasn’t really open to suggestions, and I didn’t make any, because I was in awe of him. George was not dictatorial or fussy, he just knew what he wanted.”

O’Sullivan singled out Cukor’s major qualities as a director as his deep understanding of the material and his tremendous humor, which he used to get what he wished for. In one scene, O’Sullivan had to dance with a dog. “I had just done a Tarzan film, and I couldn’t get this dog to face the camera.” Cukor came over and said, “Maureen, pretend you’re in the Tarzan film. Just wind that damn dog up and get his face on the camera–just twist it around.”

Cukor’s methods, however, were not always so benign. During her death scene, he didn’t quite like what was coming through. “Off camera,” she recalled, “George twisted my feet, turning them this way and that way. It was rather painful and I was in agony, but he got the right expression on my face.” Cukor would use the same trick, twisting Olivia De Havilland’s feet in her birth-giving scene in Gone With the Wind.

Cukor was ill during the first three previews, arising from a palet of pain for the fourth. “They were hectic, confusing times,” he later recalled, “Everybody urging different things, cut some of the stories, release the picture in two parts.” But he always gave credit to Selznick for adamantly insisting that the picture be released in its present form.

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 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 everyone was charmed by what they saw.

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.