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In David Copperfield (1935), W.C. Fields got the rare chance to play a character that was a departure from his usual roles as the eternal curmudgeon. He wasn't first choice for the role, but won it thanks to the generosity - and insecurity - of Charles Laughton, his competition for the part.
Producer David O. Selznick had spearheaded the production, over the objections of his father-in-law and boss, MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer. Conventional Hollywood wisdom held that the classics were not suitable for the screen. But Selznick had a personal connection to David Copperfield. His father, producer Lewis Selznick, had used the book to learn English when he first emigrated from Russia, then read the story to his sons every night. So Selznick bombarded Mayer with memos for a year until he wore down his resistance.
At first Mayer wanted to cast the studio's leading child star, Jackie Cooper, in the title role. But Selznick and his director, George Cukor, thought he was too American. During a trip to scout locations in England (they only kept one shot made there), Cukor discovered a ten-year-old named Freddie Bartholomew. He had him dressed as David for his meeting with Selznick. Cukor ushered the young man into Selznick's office, where Bartholomew said, "Mr. Selznick, I am David Copperfield, sir." Selznick took one look at him and said, "Right you are."
There was only one problem with Bartholomew - his parents. The boy's aunt had brought him to Cukor, but his parents refused to let him sign for the film. So Cukor returned to Hollywood without his David. Talent scouts combed the U.S. to find the right boy with no luck. Shooting was a week away when Bartholomew showed up in Hollywood, again with his aunt. This led to major legal battles over his custody and MGM's right to sign him to a contract. At one point, the boy had just boarded a boat sailing from New York to England when a studio representative pulled him off with news that his contract had finally been approved by the British government.
It was almost as difficult casting Micawber, the eternal debtor who briefly provides David with a home. The front-runners for the role were Fields and Laughton, with Laughton finally picked because of his marquee power in England. He arrived on the set having researched the part painstakingly. He had even planned the character's look to match the book's original illustrations. But none of this had given him any confidence in the role. Laughton almost always had trouble finding his character during the first few days of filming, but always came through in the end. This time, however, he agonized between takes and had trouble remembering lines. By the end of his first week, Laughton begged to be let out of his contract. He even suggested that Fields would be the better choice for the role.
He was right. As Cukor would tell interviewer Gavin Lambert, "He [Fields] was really born to play it...that rare combination of the personality and the part...He was charming to work with, his suggestions and adlibs were always in character. There was a scene in which he had to sit at a desk writing, and he asked me if he could have a cup of tea on the desk. When he got agitated, he dipped his pen into the teacup instead of the inkwell. Another time he was sitting on a high stool and asked for a wastepaper basket so he could get his feet stuck in it. Physically he wasn't quite right, wasn't bald as Dickens describes Micawber - but his spirit was perfect."
Fields wasn't the only inspired choice. Bartholomew became a star with his performance as the young David. Edna May Oliver, cast as his crotchety Aunt Betsy, made British audiences forget that she was a New Englander. And Basil Rathbone firmly established himself as one of the screen's greatest villains with his performance as David's sadistic stepfather. Ultimately, the film proved Selznick right about the classics. It was MGM's biggest moneymaker of the year, bringing in an impressive $3.5 million on a high-for-the-time investment of just over $1 million. That success paved the way for Selznick to do even more large-scale adaptations, including his 1939 blockbuster Gone With the Wind.
Producer: David O. Selznick
Director: George Cukor
Screenplay: Howard Estabrook, Hugh Walpole
Based on the Novel by Charles Dickens
Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: W.C. Fields (Micawber), Lionel Barrymore (Dan Peggotty), Maureen O'Sullivan (Dora), Madge Evans (Agnes), Edna May Oliver (Aunt Betsy), Lewis Stone (Mr. Wickfield), Frank Lawton (David as a Man), Freddie Bartholomew (David as a Child), Roland Young (Uriah Heep), Basil Rathbone (Mr. Murdstone), Elsa Lanchester (Clickett).
BW-131m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller