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John Farr

John Farr

Posted: November 29, 2009 05:11 PM

Dickens On Film

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Nineteenth century English writer Charles Dickens produced a massive legacy of novels, plays, articles, and short stories, and with the 1844 publication of The Christmas Carol, may have done more to enliven the institution of Christmas than anyone before or since.

Drawing from his own early life of poverty, Dickens' books often deal with orphans and the downtrodden. In Carol and other Dickens books, the Christmas season represents a ray of hope amidst all the misery, a time when human kindness and generosity are celebrated, and sometimes even practiced.

Since this prolific author left so much source material ripe for adaptation, you can have your very own Dickens film series leading up to the holidays. (Note: some of the author's output, notably Martin Chuzzlewhit and Bleak House, instead have lent themselves to television mini-series. Both these works have enjoyed distinguished BBC productions, also available on DVD).

As to feature films, we can thank Warner Home Entertainment for making available two beloved Dickens classics made at MGM in 1935, during Hollywood's Golden Age: David Copperfield and A Tale Of Two Cities.

In George Cukor’s sensitive and ennobling Copperfield, on the untimely death of his mother (Elizabeth Allan), young David (Freddie Bartholomew) endures increasingly harsh treatment from his stepfather, Mr. Murdstone (Basil Rathbone). The boy is finally sent away on his own to work in London, and finds refuge in the home of Mr. Micawber (W.C. Fields), a kind but chronically broke individual who still adopts the boy as his own. Eventually, David journeys to the estate of his Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver), where he meets a range of spirited characters. When Murdstone arrives to demand the boy’s return, we know Aunt Betsey’s decision will chart the course of young David’s life. A box-office smash on release, Copperfield is eminently faithful to the spirit of the Victorian-era novel, tracing our orphan hero’s progress as he bounces from home to home in search of a real family. Oliver, Rathbone, and Lionel Barrymore excel as usual in their respective roles, while Fields musters up a charming mix of eccentricity and warmth as Micawber, a role he was born to play (though Charles Laughton was the studio’s first choice). By all means, roll out the welcome mat for David Copperfield.

Tales places us in the turbulent days leading up to the French Revolution. World-weary London barrister Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman) falls secretly in love with Gallic beauty Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan), who regards him only as a close confidante. When Lucie decides to marry the nephew of a tyrannical French marquis, Carton is crushed. But Sydney still gets a chance to prove his devotion when Lucie’s true love is arrested in Paris and sentenced to die. Director Jack Conway’s adaptation of this timeless novel (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) succeeds on the merits of its lavish production design and exquisite, tone-perfect acting from the entire cast. Colman delivers his crowning screen performance as the cynical, boozing Carton, and when he utters the cathartic line, “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done,” you’re sure to feel a lump in your throat. Top-notch support, again from Allan, Basil Rathbone and Edna May Oliver, makes this sumptuous cinematic gem worth visiting again and again.

Nearly ten years after this production, with a battered but victorious Britain coming out of the Second War, editor-turned-director David Lean would create his own pair of peerless Dickens adaptations: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Both these classics are part of the venerable Criterion Collection series. 

In Lean’s rendering of Expectations, we follow the fortunes of Pip, an orphan who reaches young manhood (as John Mills), only to discover he has an anonymous benefactor intent on making him a real gentleman. With his new friend Herbert Pocket (a young Alec Guinness), Pip sets out to make his mark in bustling nineteenth-century London. But just who is Pip’s mysterious sponsor?  Perhaps the finest Dickens adaptation ever, this mesmerizing film about chance encounters and changing fortunes begins with a nerve-rattling sequence in a graveyard that’s one of the finest moments in British film. Both Mills and Guinness may be a trifle old for their roles, but their virtuosity fully compensates. Guinness, in his first significant screen appearance, is particularly striking as Pocket, giving us a tantalizing taste of things to come. A bona-fide masterpiece.

Two years later came Oliver Twist. Left on the doorstep of an orphanage as an infant, young Oliver (John Howard Davies) is subjected to various cruelties at the hands of the staff. Eventually, he runs away and joins a gang of homeless child ruffians led by smarmy ringmaster Fagin (Guinness again), a seasoned pickpocket and thief. Oliver’s adventurous life on the streets of London appears to draw to an end after he meets good-hearted Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), but Fagin has no intention of letting his ward slip away to a life of genteel comforts. This masterful adaptation found Lean abridging the author’s long story about a young orphan’s changing fortunes in Victorian England into a beautifully paced two-hour film. Among a splendid cast, an unrecognizable Guinness and Robert Newton are truly exceptional, respectively playing Fagin and evil accomplice Bill Sikes with gusto. Also fun to watch is a young Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger. Essentially a tale of triumph in a world of degrading poverty and class bias, Oliver Twist is a first-rate drama brimming with hope, pathos and fury.

Carol, Dickens’s most widely read and enduring work, has experienced many iterations, including a respectable Hollywood version with Reginald Owen from 1938, and in 1984, an admirable TV special starring the late George C. Scott. Yet neither in my view tops the definitive 1951 British version, better known as Scrooge, starring the incomparable Alastair Sim. This gifted actor seamlessly inhabits the character of the world’s most famous miser, who one Christmas Eve gets a chance at redemption with some spectral visits, first by deceased partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, the sum of which transforms the sour skinflint into a child-like, jolly man who resolves to use his remaining time and fortune to help those in need, starting with his own underpaid, browbeaten clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns), and his family. Skillfully directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst, the film is tight at roughly eighty-five minutes, yet remains extremely moving, with Sim’s droopy eyes projecting all of Scrooge’s terror, shame, and regret. By contrast, his outright giddiness at the film’s conclusion will leave you feeling just the same way -- very much in the holiday spirit.

Not surprisingly, Dickens’ film adaptations have also been set to music. While some admire Ronald Neame’s musical version of Scrooge (1970), starring Albert Finney, with music by Leslie Bricusse, my own preference is Sir Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning Oliver!, made two years prior, starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed, and young Mark Lester in the title role. With the story hewing closely to the 1948 version, here we have the addition of color, dance and a tuneful score by Lionel Bart to reinvigorate this familiar tale. The Oscar-nominated Moody rivals Guinness as Fagin (high praise), and Reed makes a truly ominous Sykes. The terrific score includes “Consider Yourself (At Home)”, “Food, Glorious Food”, and “As Long As He Needs Me”. Oliver! won six Oscars in 1968, including Best Picture, a rare feat for a musical. Watch this with the family, and you’re bound to say: “Please, sir, may I have some more?”

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