"We are friends for life." The man speaking: Micawber, played by W.C. Fields with great comedic charm and human warmth. The child addressed: David, played by Freddie Bartholomew in his Hollywood debut. The movie: David Copperfield, still one of the best-ever screen adaptations of a Charles Dickens novel. "To call the casting inspired is to underrate it," historian David Shipman wrote in his The Story of Cinema. Lionel Barrymore, Edna May Oliver, Maureen O'Sullivan, Basil Rathbone and more joined Fields and Bartholomew in portraying the eccentrics, cads and loving family of this film directed by George Cukor. David O. Selznick produced, insisting on an attention to Dickensian detail that included matching the sets to the first edition's illustrations. The result: one of the greatest page-to-screen adaptations ever.
The rich beauties of Dickens come to flavorful life in David Copperfield, a scrupulous example of a sprawling novel distilled into manageable movie form. The saga of young master Copperfield moves quickly through Dickens' marvelous gallery of eccentrics, with David played as a youth by the exceptionally good Freddie Bartholomew (you'll see why he became a star) and as an adult by Frank Lawton. The remainder of the cast is an almost unbelievable feast of acting, most famously with W.C. Fields stepping out of character--but not too far--as the grandiloquent Mr. Micawber ("You perceive before you the shattered fragments of a temple that was once called Man"). Basil Rathbone is David's stepfather, the ice-cold Murdstone; Lionel Barrymore is warm-hearted Dan Peggoty; Maureen O'Sullivan the adorable Dora; and Roland Young a creepy-crawly Uriah Heep. But best of all is Edna May Oliver, whose Betsy Trotwood bustles through the movie like a no-nonsense field general (if Oscars for supporting acting had been invented in 1935 instead of 1936, Oliver surely would have bagged the first award). The film is a shining example of producer David O. Selznick's Tradition of Quality approach, given all the sheen MGM could apply. Director George Cukor brings empathy and an unfailing sense of dramatic craftsmanship to the episodic material, which throbs with genuinely Dickensian wit and heart. --Robert Horton