Even as a big fan of Freddie Bartholomew I don't particularly agree with the common assessment that the first half of David Copperfield (1935) is much better than the second. At the same time I guess there's more than some merit to the idea when even the film's director, George Cukor, acknowledged the problem and explained that this was because the first volume of Charles Dickens' 1850 novel was superior to the second volume!
That should absolve Frank Lawton from much of the blame, which is good, because I find myself gaining more of an appreciation for Lawton's performance as Copperfield as young adult with each viewing. It's tough to trump Freddie Bartholomew though, even here in his American debut, and Lawton can't. No adult actor could and I believe the reason stretches beyond even Dickens' original text simply to the idea that the nostalgia of childhood is going to effect the viewer more than one's remembrances of their early twenties. Cap that idea with Bartholomew's mastery of the heartstrings and conveyance of expressions well beyond his twelve years and no one could touch his David of youth.
Early in the production process of David Copperfield David O. Selznick had considered filming the book as two separate movies. A note in the American Film Catalog mentions that the second film would have cost an additional $100,000 (468), but since the completed 130-minute film wound up costing over a million dollars to make that doesn't sound like a deal-breaking number.W.C. Fields, who saw much of his footage cut out, but prior to that Selznick even tested the film without any of Lionel Barrymore's Dan Peggotty character. Again the AFI Catalog, pointing to an unnamed Selznick biography as their source, claims that Selznick put Barrymore back after discussing the matter with four schoolteachers after the showing, each of whom apparently felt the character was too important to be cut. Worried about the length of the film, Selznick was finally tipped towards what we have as the finished project when he brought his problem up to MGM head Nicholas Schenck and Schenck replied "What do you mean, how long can you make it ... How long is it good?"
While I wouldn't have minded MGM leaving in whatever filmed Fields' footage existed I can imagine the downside of this would have been turning David Copperfield into a W.C. Fields picture and stealing emphasis from the title character.
David Copperfield Casting Notes
Fields, despite being considered from the start, was not the first actor hired on to play Micawber. Given Fields' now iconic status it may seem odd over 75 years later that he wasn't considered as commercial as the first choice, Charles Laughton, who not only shaved his head for the part but was employed at it for two entire days before returning to Paramount.
Selznick wrote MGM Vice-President and Secretary J. Robert Rubin that an illness Laughton had at the time had delayed the film he was working on at Paramount (81), but Laughton biographer Simon Callow wrote that once filming began "Laughton lost his confidence completely, and begged to be released" (85), which he was. Laughton's wife and Copperfield's Clickett, Elsa Lanchester, said much the same (Callow 85, Curtis 312). In his letter Selznick debates the difference between having Fields or Laughton in the part with the feeling that Laughton would have been the one important name in the film.
Fields biographer James Curtis writes that it was felt Fields would strengthen the domestic gate while Laughton would do likewise in the United Kingdom (311). For its investment just over a million dollars the film wound up being a huge hit, grossing $2.8 million during its 86-week run with a quarter of that number coming directly from British Commonwealth countries (Schatz 169). Fields would reap some of the best reviews of all the Copperfield cast with cast mate Roland Young telling him he "walked away with the picture" (Curtis 320).
Micawber was a rich character part that was much easier to cast than the title role of David Copperfield himself. Studio head Louis B. Mayer first suggested that Copperfield be made a vehicle for popular MGM contract player Jackie Cooper. I get the feeling that following through on that dictate would have cost the studio almost the entirety of that U.K. take! After all, David Copperfield is Dickens and quintessentially British. The film's ensemble cast is littered with British character actors and of the inclusion of American born Fields in the key role of Micawber his biographer perfectly sums up that "Fields wasn't English, but he was undeniably Dickensian" (Curtis 313). But Jackie Cooper as David Copperfield? It wouldn't do, and neither likely would the Florida born child actor David Jack Holt who'd been cast in the role and was being taught a British accent at the time of Freddie Bartholomew's discovery.
The stories of Bartholomew's coming to America and MGM are a bit murky with what seems to be the likely case being the shadiest story of the bunch. Selznick and Cukor had spent a good deal of time in Britain in advance of David Copperfield, for while it was largely being filmed at MGM studios they wanted to get as much of a feel for Dickens' homeland as possible. During one of these trips they learned of Freddie Bartholomew and either led him to believe he had the part or actually offered it to him then and there.
The problem was that British child labor laws forbade MGM's exporting Bartholomew to America and putting him to work. Bartholomew and his guardian, his Aunt Millicent, sailed to New York, presumably on a vacation. According to later press reports, no doubt fed directly from the studio, when they saw that MGM was auditioning for David Copperfield they headed west on a lark to land the part. Selznick seems to give away the matter when he writes a letter complaining that Bartholomew's father had told the English press that the part was already Freddie's when he and Millicent set sail. Selznick then goes into a long explanation of how they "obviously could not afford to even appear in position of violating law" but how "we have spent fortune trying to find another child without any success, and it seems to us British Government would give us this permission if matter properly presented to them."
The situation gets even cloudier in later press reports where Bartholomew's parents claim that Freddie's Aunt had kidnapped him to America. Whether shanghaied by Selznick and MGM or his Aunt, Bartholomew was in the U.S. and the part was his.
David Copperfield, the Film:
We meet the world of David Copperfield through Freddie Bartholomew's eyes. We'll judge it through Frank Lawton's.An idyllic youth spent in mother worship is shattered when the beautiful young widow (Elizabeth Allan) settles on the first man to pay her any attention, the ultra-strict Murdstone (Basil Rathbone). After returning from a stay at Dan Peggotty's (Lionel Barrymore), his caretaker's (Jessie Ralph) brother, David returns to find Murdstone officially his stepfather and Mr. M's even stricter sister (Violet Kemble Cooper) making it known that she's now lady of the house.
Murdstone and his bushy browed sister make life hell not only for young David, who's subject to a brutal whipping, but his sweet mother as well who's soon driven to her grave. Murdstone expresses his dislike and disgust for David before shipping him off to work in a relative's winery where he has the good fortune of lodging with the perpetually broke Mr. Micawber and family.After bonding with Micawber the silver-tongued older man's debts finally drive him and his family from town and send David on a 72-mile walk to his Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver), who he's yet to meet, but we have already seen in the opening scene of David Copperfield.
Aunt Betsey will eventually have a showdown with the villainous Murdstone over the boy's welfare and decides to keep him on in her household to raise him properly. There, David spends much of his time with the fantastic Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle), a defective fellow who lives under the belief that long deceased King Charles I inhabits his head. Nonetheless Aunt Betsey trusts Dick as a shrewd decision maker.
David is eventually sent to school and begins work for Mr. Wickfield (Lewis Stone), who has a daughter, Agnes (Marilyn Knowlden), approximately David's age, and a most 'umble clerk, Uriah Heep (Roland Young), who importantly creeps out Freddie Bartholomew with a lingering handshake in his final scene as David.
Enough years pass for Freddie Bartholomew to grow into Frank Lawton, another British born actor who'd previously appeared in the cast of 1934 Academy Award winning Best Picture Cavalcade (1933). Lawton is very believable as an adult version of Bartholomew, especially considering most audiences had little to no previous knowledge of either actor at the time of David Copperfield's release.
Adult David still works for Mr. Wickfield and spends time with his Aunt and Mr. Dick. Agnes has grown up to be Madge Evans, who I found much more suited for her part as the daughter in the previous Selznick-Cukor classic Dinner at Eight (1933) than I did in her quiet role of Agnes in Copperfield.The actress to be in the second part of David Copperfield was Maureen O'Sullivan who had the fun role of Dora, a girl David falls for hard while at the ballet with his school chum Steerforth (Hugh Williams). Dora is no doubt beautiful but also dumb as a stump. In fact my extremely abbreviated notes for David Copperfield included the line "Dora = dumb" which led me to Googling around some and discovering that in addition to all of the marvelous characters Charles Dickens created in this work, he may have also inspired the mysterious but ever prevalent (at least on Match Game!) Dumb Dora of the 20th Century. She fills the account book with doodles; she burns the roast; she lets her dog dance on the dinner table; she babbles in baby talk, no, she ain't too bright, but Dora is kind and beautiful and I'd have picked her over dull and saintly Agnes too!
Beyond adult versions of characters earlier played by children, and the presence of several characters who were around at the end of the first half of the picture, namely those played by Edna May Oliver, Lennox Pawle, Lewis Stone and Roland Young, we also have the eventual return of two of the other more important characters we've met, Lionel Barrymore's Peggotty and W.C. Fields' Micawber.By the climax, where Micawber pronounces Heep "the most consumate villain who ever existed," and "you Heep of infamy," we have all of our favorites, minus Freddie, together in the same room, before winding into what I consider the only mildly disappointing scene of the movie: the final one, which nonetheless made sense and had to be, even if I'd rather have closed with the classic characters of Heep and Micawber.
Freddie Bartholomew is perfect as young Copperfield and would work for Selznick in additional literary adaptations, Anna Karenina (1935) and Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936). Frank Lawton, even if you don't like him as an adult Copperfield, is wonderful as an adult Freddie Bartholomew. Not as good as Tyrone Power turns the trick in Lloyds of London (1936), but Frank Lawton isn't Ty Power, there's a bit of a charisma gap there. He's excellent with O'Sullivan whom he moons over until he eventually blows up at her and he does a fine job of putting Heep in his place on more than one occasion.
Lewis Stone is one of the few disappointments, likely the fault of his character making him invisible, though he is allowed to get up his own dander at Heep in one scene. I've already mentioned my feelings about Madge Evans, Stone's daughter on the screen which adds up to a very boring family, and my elation over Maureen O'Sullivan, whose part is as juicy as Stone's is bare boned.Other standouts include screen siblings Basil Rathbone and Violet Kemble Cooper, who despite my saving further praise for Roland Young as Heep, are the most villainous characters in the movie. As good as Young was I couldn't help wondering what Boris Karloff might have done with the Heep role, though that's probably not fair to Roland Young who didn't do anything wrong. He was appropriately 'umble from the beginning, but always with a fair amount of sleaziness to his character, a quality which finally explodes across the screen when he basically begins to drool over Madge Evans.
Lionel Barrymore and Edna May Oliver both ham it up big here, so you get what you expect and like it or not based upon that fact. Oliver, as in the case of Fields, seems to provide the historic definition of her character in retrospect. She's playing herself, but she is Aunt Betsey, while in the case of Barrymore you never get too far from thinking there goes Lionel Barrymore acting cranky and crotchety, this time with a beard.
Lennox PawleSpecial space earned by Lennox Pawle as Mr. Dick. Guerric DeBona sums up Pawle's Mr. Dick best in his Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era when he calls him "a sublime and saintly fool, unlike anything in the history of American movies, who seems to have stepped out of a childish but surreal cartoon" (53).
Apparently Pawle's performance as the bizarre Mr. Dick has thus far escaped modern audiences as he manages to be the only member of the large David Copperfield cast listed on Wikipedia without a link to his own biographical page (Okay, each Little Em'ly performer only has a link to a stub, but Pawle lacks even that!). His IMDb bio is empty except for the curious bit of information that he was married to Dorothy Parker which made me start digging! Real quick, it's not that Dorothy Parker.
Off to NewspaperArchive.com I went, and there's a slew of Pawle references from turn-of-the-century English papers, especially about 1896-1901, but the coverage is typically only mentioning him as being in the cast of certain London stage plays with very little about him other than the usual preface of his being the great comic actor. Most disappointing was that the news services did not even publish a snippet about his death in 1936, just a year after he gained so many mentions for his wonderful performance as Mr. Dick! So I took a deep breath and paid the New York Times four dollars and change hoping that the obit listed there would be more than a two line report, and thankfully it was.
The following few paragraphs of Lennox Pawle biography is cobbled together mostly from that February 23, 1936 New York Times obituary and supplemented by bits of the few other obscure references I came across in my search for information:
Lennox Pawle was born in London, April 27, 1872, the son of John Christopher Pawle, a London soliciter. While it is said that he began his professional life as a London newspaper reporter and would go on to own a racing newspaper, he'd take to the stage as early as 1890, at age 18. Prior to that debut in Ticklish Times at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Pawle had studied acting at Sarah Thorne's Dramatic School in that same city. Pawle seems to be a constant presence in the newspapers by 1896 for his acting and I'd imagine his reporting career was well behind him by that time.
His most famous part on the stage was in Pomander Walk which brought him to the United States for the first time in 1910 with the first U.S. production opening in April 1911. Pomander Walk was written by Louis N. Parker, Pawle's father-in-law. Pawle's wife, Dorothy Parker, also acted, and played the part of Little Em'ly in her father's 1914 production of The Highway of Life, a work based on David Copperfield. Pawle would get rave notices for playing Micawber in The Highway of Life (O.P. Heggie played Uriah Heep).
While Pawle seems anonymous today his Times obituary remarked on how his "snow-white hair, rosy, cherubic countenance and monocle" was then "familiar to the theatrical worlds of London, New York and Hollywood. In all three groups he had an unusually large number of friends." After some sporadic appearances on the British screen, Pawle was in a handful of productions of Fox Films in America in 1929 and then had small parts in MGM's The Sin of Madelon Claudet and Mata Hari (both 1931). After what should have been his breakout role as Mr. Dick for MGM he played small parts in The Gay Deception for Fox and then in an uncredited role for Copperfield director George Cukor in Sylvia Scarlett (1935). He died February 23, 1936 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Lennox Pawle was 63.
Of his wife's famous name he was quoted during the time of David Copperfield production as saying "It's dreadfully embarrassing, really ... Everywhere I go people expect me to be funny" (Thomas). The few direct quotes I spotted from Pawle over the years were usually pretty wry and could often be read both in a serious and humorous way. I suppose if you were reading the papers then you'd know exactly how to take it because Pawle was not at all an unknown quantity, again, his name was usually proceeded by the words comic actor.
Perhaps no greater praise would be heaped upon David Copperfield than that which came from Andre Sennwald of the New York Times in his review of January 19, 1935. Reserving most of his column's space to congratulate W.C. Fields on his job as Micawber, Sennwald writes "It is my belief that this cinema edition of 'David Copperfield' is the most profoundly satisfying screen manipulation of a great novel that the camera has ever given us."
Choosing to highlight only 68 of Dickens' original 92 characters, MGM's David Copperfield plays almost as a string of quick vignettes held together by the presence of either Bartholomew or Lawton's David the Younger. But each little segment, whether sad or sweet, threatening or humorous, is solid and kept alive by the sheer mass of colorful characters littered throughout David's life. It was said by many, including Sennwald, that the 1935 film version of David Copperfield was like the drawings of Phiz come to life. It worked the first time and it works here as well. A fantastic classic!
- Callow, Simon. Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor. New York: Grove Press, 1987.
- Curtis, James. W. C. Fields : A Biography. New York: Back Stage Books, 2004.
- DeBona, Guerric. Film Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era. University of Illinois Press, 2010.
- Lambert, Gavin. On Cukor. New York, 1972.
- "Lennox Pawle Dies; English Actor, 63." The New York Times 23 Feb 1936.
- Long, Robert Emmet, ed. George Cukor: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi, 2001.
- Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
- Selznick, David O. and Rudy Behlmer. Memo from David O. Selznick. Modern Library, 2000.
- "David Copperfield." The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films 1931-1940. University of California Press, 1993.
- Thomas, Dan. "David Copperfield Goes Hollywood." Laredo Times 21 Apr 1935: 15.
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