It is a credit to the studio system that on occasion, it could create genuine pieces of art that make one interested in reading the source material. David Copperfield is one such film: a sweet, delightful and lavish adaptation that has excellent performances and an exceptional debut.
Young David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew) lives a happy life with his mother (Elizabeth Allan) and his nurse Peggoty (Jessie Ralph). That is until the Widow Copperfield marries Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone). He is a cold figure, though his sister Jane (Violet Kemble Cooper) is worse.
After his mother's death, David is sent to work in a wine bottling plant, watched over by the kindly if irresponsible Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields). David then runs away rather than go back to Murdstone when the Micawber family is forced to relocate due to Mr. Micawber's time in debtors' prison. David finds refuge with his distant Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) and her cousin Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle).
As he grows up to become a man (Frank Lawton), he is loved by Agnes Wickfield (Madge Evans) and loves the addled-brained Dora Spenlow (Maureen O'Sullivan). Their marriage is ended by her sudden death, but David discovers his love for Agnes before the villainous Uriah Heep (Roland Young) can take even more advantage of the Wickfield family. With David and Agnes united at last, David Copperfield's life story ends happily.
David Copperfield is an absolute triumph of a film, beautiful and delightful. At the center of its triumph is the collection of performances, with an all-star cast and a star-making turn. David Copperfield marked the American debut of child star Freddie Bartholomew, and I do not think we will ever have as perfect a characterization of Charles Dickens' title character as his.
Bartholomew has an angelic face that goes well with David's wide-eyed innocence. However, he has more than sweetness to offer the audience. Bartholomew's acting is superb. You would be hard-pressed not to be emotionally moved by David's nighttime prayer when he finally arrives at Aunt Betsey's home after an over 70 miles walk. As he wanders off in his prayer, exhausted from his long journey, he apologizes to God. It's a beautiful moment. Bartholomew makes you feel David's horror and pain when Murdstone brutally beats him (or beats him as brutally as the Production Code would allow). His expressive eyes and excellent diction enhance his performance.
Almost everyone in David Copperfield is simply astonishing acting-wise. This is, to my mind, the only W.C. Fields performance where he plays it straight, and his Mr. Micawber is extraordinary from his first scene, when he's walking over rooftops to avoid creditors. Fields shows a softer, kinder side as Micawber, and even gets a chance to work in a little Uriah Heep impersonation that fits into the characterization of a kind yet bumbling man.
Ralph's loving nurse/maid Peggoty is sweetness itself; Rathbone is at his sneering best as the cruel Murdstone, and Oliver's bossy, pompous, eccentric but ultimately caring Aunt Betsey balances comedy and drama. My only issue is with Roland Young's Uriah Heep, who seemed even for the character too exaggerated as the allegedly humble man. However, given how Heep is meant to be overwhelming in his insincerity, I am cutting a little slack.
Director George Cukor, who had brilliantly brought Little Women to the screen, does equally well with a British novel as he did with the American literary classic. He directed the actors to their very best, some of them to the best performances of their careers. In other aspects, Cukor did wonders with his directing. The editing of when David is overwhelmed at Murdstone's brutal teaching methods is remarkably tense, the suspense and fear building to an almost unbearable climax. A scene where David's friend Steerforth (Hugh Williams) and the young sailor's niece Emily (Florine McKinney) requires only their eyes to show how she will jilt her old love for a new one.
The only real flaw, if that, is that you do eventually feel the movie's running time, but that is a minor quibble.
David Copperfield is a deeply moving film, anchored by excellent performances all around. Freddie Bartholomew is a revelation as the young David to where you wish the movie did not have to have him grow up. W. C. Fields showed himself a genuine actor versus a persona. David Copperfield is an enchanting film, and to my mind the standard that future adaptions should be measured by. The film shows that when the best people are working in front and behind the camera, backed up by the poshest studio production standards around, even something as "literature" can become not just art but a true thing of beauty.