Friday, December 28, 2012

David Copperfield (1913)

I have not read David Copperfield. This put me at a disadvantage yesterday afternoon, when I sat down to watch the second-ever film adaptation of Dickens’ novel, directed by Thomas Bentley. It is to Bentley’s discredit that I can say this; after all, a work of art should be able to stand on its own two feet. While this 1913 version of the story is coherent, at 67 minutes, it offers only brief snips of an involved tale, and little development of the men, women, and circumstances within.

It looks great, though. The early-teens were a strange and fascinating period for cinematography and narrative structure—from them you can find stagey melodramas that seem barely advanced past 1905; but you can also find exhilarating little films that pointed the way to Griffith and other revolutionaries. In Bentley’s hands, David Copperfield becomes an utterly transporting film, nestling us in a 19th century Britain that looks and feels as we imagine it would. The actors are large in the frame; dressed in period costumes that are flamboyant only when necessary. Sets lack the theatrical phoniness common to this era: many of the scenes in the film are set outdoors, even on location. The carriage in which David takes his early trips is an impressive looking machine, and the Piggoty’s overturned-boat-turned-house looks exactly as it must, inside and out. Nothing is deliberately spectacular in this film, and yet, Bentley achieves spectacle.

The actors bolster this realism with their own—at least, some of them do. Reginald Sheffield, as the froth-headed young David, delivers one of the film’s best, and least-affected performances. His interactions with the adults in the film, as well as other boys and girls, are a highlight of David Copperfield, marred only by the kids’ tendency to glance at the camera. I especially liked the scenes in the schoolroom, where the unruly boys, cramped by their tightly-spaced desks, clamor and crawl around. The frame teems with them, even though there are only, maybe, ten students in the room. Boys of this age, in such environments, really are like that. Jamie Darling, as Daniel Peggotty, and Peggy Harcourt, as Betsy Trotwood, are similarly believable.

Other actors, it seems, approached the material with a different philosophy. H. Collins, as Mr. Micawber, constructs a character almost entirely from pantomime clich├ęs. Jack Hulcup’s Uriah Heep skulks and claws the air like Gollum. Johnny Butt, as Edwards Murdstone, is more restrained; but even he chooses to convey his character’s core qualities through symbols. Notice how he repeatedly stabs the palm of one hand with the index finger of the other, suggesting an unbending commitment to rules and principles, enforced by misery.

Such a mix of different acting styles is not uncommon in films of this era—it’s another example of transitional filmmaking, as actors trained on the stage tried (or doggedly refused) to adapt to the newer medium. The histrionic stylists in David Copperfield look overwrought, I think. But, others with whom I saw the film enjoyed them. An argument could be made (though I’m not making it here) that Dickens’ material is best served by performances of this type. Many of Dickens’ characters were, after all, grotesques.

These performances, if not always convincing, are nonetheless interesting to watch, and they keep David Copperfield humming along for a good while. Bentley’s script does, eventually, run out of gas—right around the time young master Sheffield cedes his role to Len Bethel, who plays David in his teens. Bethel is a non-entity, though it isn’t entirely his fault. The second half of David Copperfield is hurt by the screenwriter’s apparent need to cram as many noteworthy episodes into the script as he can. The result, in a film barely feature-length, is an increased number of scenes of decreasing length, introducing characters or turns of event that lack dramatic weight, simply because we have so little time to spend with them. David’s tragic first wife, Dora (played by early British film star, Alma Taylor), suffers a nearly pathos-free death thanks to her minimal screen-time. We’re acquainted with the fact of their marriage, but not the content of it. For us, then, there is nothing to lose.

This excess fealty to source material speaks to the esteem in which Dickens’ novel was held—and, probably, to the esteem film itself held, relative to the novel in 1913. It ages the movie, in a way. So does Bentley’s decision to film David Copperfield without a single dialogue screen. Every scene is prefaced by a prescriptive intertitle, lifted from Dickens’ pages, describing what is to come. The actors, then, must illustrate what the intertitle has already summarized. This perhaps explains some of the actors’ pantomime antics. More, though, it reminds us that there exists another version of this story, in another medium, to which David Copperfield the Movie is quite consciously and deliberately subordinate. If the splendid performances, locations and props in the film pull us in, this knowledge pushes us back out.

Watch this film, but read the book first. Make the time between reading and watching short. This is the best way to enjoy David Copperfield, I suspect. And I believe Thomas Bentley would agree.

Where to see David Copperfield:
Cecil Hepworth’s production of David Copperfield screened at TIFF Bell Lightbox on December 27, 2013, part of TIFF’s Dickens on Screen film programme.

While the projection of the film was excellent, the overall presentation was not. Lightbox staff screened the film in dead silence. This is at least the third time they have done this with (to?) a silent feature. Each time the excuse is different, but it is a disturbing pattern nonetheless, and it needs to end. While the audience for silent films in Toronto is small, it is also loyal, and deserves respect.


  1. I saw the 1922 Nordisk DAVID COPPERFIELD earlier this year and by and large felt like I was reading a review of that version. Especially this part: "Make the time between reading and watching short". Having read the book but some years ago I was still at a disadvantage. Ten years on the novel was evidently held in equal esteem.

  2. The problem is by no means exclusive to the period. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) suffers from it too. On the other hand, Oliver Twist (1922) isn't faithful enough.