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Warner Home Video presents

David Copperfield (1935)

"Copperfield, at present, I have nothing to bestow but advice. Still, that advice is so far worth taking, I have never taken it myself, and am the miserable creature you behold. Young friend, I counsel you: Annual income, 20 pounds; annual expenditure, 19 pounds. Result? Happiness. Annual income, 20 pounds; annual expenditure, 21 pounds. Result? Misery. Farewell, Copperfield. I shall be happy to approve your prospects, in case anything turns upówhich, I may say, I am hourly expecting."- Wilkins Micawber (W.C. Fields)

Stars: W.C. Fields, Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan, Madge Evans, Edna May Oliver, Lewis Stone, Frank Lawton, Freddie Bartholomew, Elizabeth Allan, Roland Young
Other Stars: Jessie Ralph, Una O'Connor, Elsa Lanchester, Violet Kemble Cooper, Lennox Pawle
Director: George Cukor

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 02h:10m:02s
Release Date: 2006-10-10
Genre: drama

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Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AB+B B-

 

DVD Review

Charles Dickens paints with broad strokesólarger-than-life characters, monumental events, astounding coincidences, and subplots galore. Yet there's also an intimacy to his novels, an immediacy that transcends the prodigious prose and rambling narrative, and director George Cukor captures that quality in his screen version of David Copperfield. With its formidable cast of acclaimed actors, literate screenplay, and marvelous Victorian sets and costumes, this meticulous production proved Hollywood naysayers wrong by appealing to a surprisingly broad audience and making millions for MGM. Lo and behold, Dickens could play in Peoria, and the film's willingness to embrace the author's inimitable style and tone (instead of modernizing it for the masses) somehow protects it from changing tastes and mores. When viewed today, David Copperfield doesn't seem dated, just Dickensian, and that's possibly the best compliment one could pay this delightful movie.

Condensing the massive novel to a palatable cinematic length could not have been easy, but for producer David O. Selznick, the task would prove to be a mere warm-up for the even more gargantuan Gone With the Wind a few years later. By comparison, one would think adapting David Copperfield would be a breeze, but Dickens populates his books with so many colorful personalities, it's difficult to give each its proper due. The film's acting, however, is so finely tuned and the screenplay so tight, even minor characters make major impressions, and remain in our memory long after the film ends.

The saga begins with perhaps the simplest opening in the history of literature: "I am born." But life quickly gets complicated for young David (Freddie Bartholomew), whose father passed away before his birth and whose loving but feeble mother (Elizabeth Allan) falls into the clutches of the stern and controlling Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone), who treats the boy more like an unruly animal than a son. Only the devoted nursemaid, Peggotty (Jessie Ralph), looks after him properly, but when David's mother dies in childbirth, Murdstone dismisses Peggotty and ships David off to London to learn a trade. There, he boards with the warm but irresponsible Wilkins Micawber (W.C. Fields) and his ever burgeoning brood, until more upheaval leads him to his gruff but gold-hearted Aunt Betsy (Edna May Oliver), who gives him the stable home life and formal education he's long craved. More adventures befall David (who grows into actor Frank Lawton) as he navigates young manhood, and learns about love, treachery, betrayal, and loss.

Like most great fiction, the foundation of David Copperfield lies in its characters, and Dickens masterfully creates a gallery of both beloved and hateful eccentrics, all of whom the excellent cast beautifully realizes. Bartholomew, who must carry more than half the film on his pint-sized shoulders, never resorts to childish tricks to win sympathy or affection, and his natural portrayal remains one of the era's best juvenile performances. As the adult David, Lawton is equally good, but never garners the same praise, perhaps because he's overshadowed by showier roles. After all, it's tough to compete with professional scene-stealers, and David Copperfield employs the best. Rathbone is magnificent as the glowering Murdstone; Roland Young nails the obsequious Uriah Heep; Ralph makes the perfect Peggotty, using her leathery face and liquid eyes to melt our hearts; Fields is an inspired choice (and unequivocal joy) as the platitude-spouting Micawber; and the always wonderful Oliver, with her pursed lips, arched eyebrows, and withering glances, steals the show as Aunt Betsy. Lionel Barrymore, Maureen O'Sullivan (as ditzy Dora), Lewis Stone, Violet Kemble Cooper, Una O'Connor, and the delightfully daffy Lennox Pawle as loony Mr. Dick also file memorable portrayals.

As Micawber himself so succinctly puts it, "Nothing attempted, nothing gained." Selznick lived by that mantra, and were it not for his vision and dedication, Cukor's whimsical direction, and the care MGM lavished on this sprawling tale, David Copperfield would be far from the beloved classic it is today. It may not be the finest and most faithful film treatment of a Dickens novel (David Lean's Great Expectations wins that honor), but it comes mighty close.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Rough patches crop up now and then, but for the most part, the full-frame transfer looks smooth and bright, and that's quite an achievement for such an aged film. Blacks sport a lush richness, and good gray level variance adds depth and texture to the image. Contrast could be bolder and shadow detail is weak, but 1930s films often suffer from such afflictions. Although grain is noticeable and mild nicks and scratches consistently dot the print, it's obvious a good deal of restorative work has been done. All in all, this is a fine effort from Warner.

Image Transfer Grade: B+
 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: For a 72-year-old film, David Copperfield sounds surprisingly good. Warner technicians have wiped clean any pops and crackles from the Dolby Surround track, and though noticeable hiss remains, it never overwhelms the audio. A harsh edge still afflicts the music and dialogue (making some conversations difficult to understand), and raised vocal levels occasionally flirt with distortion, but considering the movie's advanced age, such imperfections are understandable.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 32 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Vintage short, Pirate Party on Catalina Isle
  2. Vintage short, Two Hearts in Wax Time
  3. Classic cartoon, Poor Little Me
  4. Leo Is on the Air radio promo
Extras Review: Warner always includes a couple of vault treasures on their classic DVDs, and the David Copperfield disc kicks off with the 20-minute early Technicolor short, Pirate Party on Catalina Isle. MGM's cameras travel to the stars' vacation paradise for this bit of musical nonsense that features cameos by Errol Flynn, Cary Grant, Mickey Rooney, Randolph Scott, and Marion Davies. Songs, dances, water sports, and even a swimsuit fashion show comprise the festivities of this swashbuckling celebration. Equally silly, Two Hearts in Wax Timeóalso in Technicolor and running 15 minutesódepicts the drunken fantasies of a garment worker who envisions his mannequins coming to life. The real star of both films is Technicolor, and it's a treat to absorb all the eye-filling hues.

Up next, the 11-minute MGM cartoon Poor Little Me focuses on a forlorn skunk who bemoans his ostracism by the woodland animal community until he's befriended by a female bunny that's lost her sense of smell. A six-and-a-half-minute Leo Is on the Air promo follows, touting the prestige of David Copperfield and including a scene featuring W.C. Fields and comments by adaptor Hugh Walpole. The film's original theatrical trailer (in excellent condition) wraps up the supplements.

Extras Grade: B-
 

Final Comments

A marvelous tapestry of memorable characters, romance, and strife, David Copperfield exudes Dickensian warmth and charm. Producer David O. Selznick and director George Cukor capture the spirit and timbre of this venerable classic, and Warner does such a fine job transferring the film to DVD, the disc deserves a spot on the shelf right next to the novel. Recommended.

David Krauss 2007-02-22