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Monday, July 16, 2018

Literary Classic Put On Paying Basis


Greenbriar Posting #2000: David Copperfield (1935) Is Evergreen For Metro


MGM had a “World Heritage” series they launched in 1962. Designed as outreach to schools and sop to group attendance, the oldies group generally booked on off days (Tuesday was choice for venues near me), and would play matinee-only at many sites. Cousin to the Heritage lot was “Enrichment” titles, which were literary-based and ripe for higher-brow approval. All of selections had played TV or were about to, but freshness wasn’t the point of Heritage and Enrichment, content based after all on history, or musty books ordinarily the bane of youth bundled aboard buses to see impossibly old movies adapted from even older text. MGM kept prints at their Charlotte exchange for as long as there was a Charlotte exchange. A friend who worked there told me that upstairs storage fairly groaned with 35mm and tons of accessories for Heritage/Enrichment, plus long-beard musicals brought back to pleasure middle-agers. Sad day was when all this got junked with closure of the address, though a few stragglers continued to be booked right into the early 80’s. Enrichment was the bundle that held David Copperfield, which I was jubilant to see at Gastonia, NC’s Webb Theatre in 1969, just me alone with a like-new 35mm print that I’m sure management regretted booking in view of non-attendance to the 1935 relic. Heaven on earth was seeing W.C. Fields, Basil Rathbone, more of favorites, up on the big screen and in a show altogether new to me (no close-by TV station ran Copperfield by the late 60’s) and hugely entertaining.






To adapt David Copperfield was longtime goal of David Selznick, him quartered at MGM from 1933 with his own autonomous unit and access to contract stars. Selznick had read the Dickens novel over and again from youth, had a dog-eared copy with red binding that his father had given him which DOS carried throughout research and production on David Copperfield. Selznick knew Dickens so well that he could spot misplaced commas or punctuation in later editions. The novel could not have been placed in more responsible hands than his. Whatever changes or abridgements he made were to the ultimate good of the project, as evidenced by popular embrace of the film and how it has sustained even unto present day. Selznick had demonstrated how to make classic novels pay with his Little Women a couple of seasons earlier, that one a rare instance of major gain for struggling RKO. Maybe success of Little Women induced a doubting Metro to go forward on David Copperfield despite built-in complication of a story cleaved in two by its half-and-half focus on David the boy, then David the man. Greater interest was vested in the child portion, that agreed by most readers, some suggesting the movie end with its title character at cusp of maturity.






Some floated possibility of a movie done in two parts, as in a pair of features based on the novel, but final vote would go for 130 minutes to tell the narrative, or what the film could contain of it, with a first 70 or so minutes given over to the kid portion, and remaining hour to the grown-up lead. Casting had benefit of bigger-than-life personas duplicating larger-than-reality figures as envisioned by Dickens, the cast based, at least visually, on “Phiz” (Hablot Browne) engravings that appeared in earliest printings of David Copperfield. A personality-driven 30’s star system could mirror perfectly the flamboyant illustrations so familiar to readers whose image of Dickens’ universe was based on these. Certainly W.C. Fields had a face and carriage straight out of Dickens, as did Edna May Oliver, Herbert Mundin, Una O’ Connor --- you could argue the whole lot belonged more to a nineteenth century than to the twentieth. I wonder how these players might function in today's entertainment setting, or could they function at all? Changes in performance style make ours a tough stage to fit Edna May Oliver into, but then, how many current names could have risen to a level equal with such a colorful cast in 1935?






Struggle at the time was to find a Brit boy adequate to play David. That would be Freddie Bartholomew, a mannerly child who could weep copious through Dickensian ordeal. Tougher and less noted quest was finding an adult as effective to essay grown David. Borrow of Frank Lawton from Universal was likely surrender to fact no one could be found so ideal as the child. What was needed, and not got, was 30’s equivalent to John Mills as mature Pip in David Lean’s Great Expectations in 1946. Lawton seems weak to have emerged from struggle we’ve seen Freddie engage, and drama of a first half of David Copperfield is not altogether sustained for a second. Most memorable of Copperfield cast couldn’t help being W.C. Fields as Micawber. Of clips excerpted since, his drop from roof ledge into family hovel is the comic highlight, Fieldsian enough to find use in 1964’s Big Parade Of Comedy or other occasion where MGM needed footage of the comedian. In fact, David Copperfield was all they owned featuring him. Fields’ would be the face of Copperfield advertising from 1935 onward, his image certainly a point of emphasis for those occasions when the film was revived during the 60’s and afterward.






Holiday Gift From NYC's Channel 2 --- A Less Mutilated Copperfield
David Selznick made friends among directors, and they’d stay loyal to him. He also kept ties with MGM so that he could borrow helmsmen in their employ when need arose. W.S. Van Dyke, for instance, came over to stage a sword brawl between Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in The Prisoner Of Zenda (credited director was John Cromwell). George Cukor had been a DOS loyalist since doing What Price Hollywood? and Little Women at RKO, both these produced by Selznick when he was with the beeping tower. Cukor must have been open to, or tolerant of, Selznick’s non-stop outpour of suggestions. The director signed a contract with DOS after the producer went independent in 1935. A lot of what recommended Cukor was how he handled literary adaptations entrusted to him by Selznick. David Copperfield was auteurist in the sense of auteurs being Selznick-Cukor, the team as decision-makers immune to Metro oversight. Shared success had given them such leeway by 1934 when David Copperfield was made. Even so revered a writer as Hugh Walpole, brought over England to help adapt Dickens, would break on the wheel that was Selznick-Cukor driven. Screenwriter Sidney Buchman recalled Walpole working under “strict tutelage” of the pair, “struggling to be a carpenter” for a David Copperfield built to mass-market blueprint. Buchman said Walpole ended up “like some beaten schoolboy, totally intimidated, utterly miserable.” Perhaps not altogether miserable though, as Walpole would stay on to work with Selznick on Little Lord Fauntleroy the following year.

8 Comments:

Blogger Donald Benson said...

Story from Basil Rathbone's autobiography: When Freddie had trouble mustering tears for the scene where Rathbone appears to beat him, the older actor took him aside and suggested he try to think of something really sad. They came up with Freddie being separated from his on-set governess, to whom he was deeply attached. It worked. Afterwards, Freddie made Rathbone swear to keep it secret, which he did until the memoir some decades later. Rathbone also reported getting a lot of abusive mail for that scene.

Was MGM's Children's Matinees series ever concurrent with those other re-release programs? I've seen a couple of odd posters: Red Skelton's "Excuse My Dust" was rendered more whimsical with the title "Mr. Belden's Amazing Gasmobile". George Pal's "The Time Machine" was stripped of whimsy, with a frankly deceptive illustration of NASA-like hardware replacing Pal's Victorian marvel.

4:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

As I recall, the MGM Children's Matinee group stayed with color titles (a possible exception: "The Invisible Boy" --- anyone recall this among the Matinees?). I don't think "David Copperfield" played as a Children's Matinee, per se. As for "Mr. Belden's Amazing Gasmobile," that would have been part of the Matinee group, as was another that got a title change, "The Happy Years," which became "The Adventures Of Young Dink Stover." I do recall the Matinees as being for the most part brand new prints, "The Time Machine" a particularly gorgeous example.

6:48 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

I played the MGM Children's Matinee features theatrically. Matinees only - 1:00 & 3:00.

All were brand new prints, not dye-transfer Technicolor prints, but new color prints nonetheless. THE INVISIBLE BOY was the only monochrome title in the series. I don't recall THE HAPPY YEARS and EXCUSE MY DUST making the Charlotte territory package.

But we had ALL the Lassies, National Velvet, Time Machine, Yearling, both Flipper flicks, Kim, Wizard of Oz, Captain Sindbad, Forbidden Planet. Maybe I'm forgetting a few others.

These movies did very well, at a half-dollar admission. All were well received, except the Invisible Boy. I had complaints because it wasn't in color.

Copperfield was not part of the group. And Yearling was edited in the printing negative to shorten the 128 minute running time, as kids even in the early 70's wouldn't sit still more than two hours.

To cash in on the wave, Paramount began their own CHILDREN's MATINEE program, but it fizzled, as they didn't have the color library kids wanted to see.



7:07 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Charles Laughton was originally cast as Micawber. He might have been good,even great. W. C. Fields, however, is perfect.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Roland Young is perfect as Uriah Heep. I get chills watching him: http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/342664/David-Copperfield-Movie-Clip-A-Personal-Claim-Upon-Me.html .

5:03 AM  
Blogger Randy said...

It wasn't until DAVID COPPERFIELD was issued on videocassette in the 1980s that I finally got to see the movie intact. It had played on television occasionally where I lived, on the one station that ran some of the old MGM's, but they invariably squeezed it into a two-hour timeslot, hacking its running time down to roughly 95 minutes. (I used to check the running time of these things with a stopwatch, I guess just so I could torture myself with the knowledge--via Leonard Maltin's TV MOVIES book--of how much was missing from the movies I was watching. Certainly my pleas to local stations to run films uncut fell on deaf ears.)

8:04 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

Later variations on the theme:

Fred Silverman, once the reigning monarch of network programming, reportedly scored his first hit at a local station with (if I recall a long-ago article with accuracy) "Family Classics". A scholarly old fellow in a booklined study would pull a volume off the shelf and introduce an old movie with some literary basis. It was, in essence, the late-night horror host made respectable.

The piece I read said it was widely imitated, but the closest I ever saw was a Sunday afternoon season of the Rathbone-Bruce Sherlocks, hosted by a local personality seated in front of a fireplace. He dispensed movie trivia; there was no attempt to "theme" those segments. There were plenty of dedicated movie slots on local TV -- cowboy movies, Shirley Temple movies, Paramount comedies, etc. -- but never hosted, beyond the all-night furniture store pitchman.

IIn the early days of VHS, there were racks in bookstores with classic movies. I remember them as being MGM titles like "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" with the case labels printed to look like leather book covers.

2:08 AM  
Blogger EricSwede said...

"Family Classics" was on WGN in Chicago for years. They had no qualms about hacking the movies to fit a time slot, usually they took it right off the front of the movie. I remember seeing "Annie Get Your Gun" and it started with Annie already in Buffalo Bill's troupe. "The Mark of Zorro" also had a big chunk missing from the beginning.

1:15 PM  

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