David Copperfield
(1935), 133 min. b&w

Rathbone as Murdstone

In 1935 films based on Charles Dickens' novels were very popular in Hollywood. MGM and David O. Selznick produced two of them: "A Tale of Two Cities" and  "David Copperfield." Directed by George Cukor, "David Copperfield opens with the birth of young David. His stern aunt, Betsy Trotwood, is on hand to assist, but becomes so upset when she finds out that the baby is a boy instead of a girl, she hits the doctor and leaves.

David is raised by his sweet young mother and doting nurse Peggotty, his father having died before his birth. Life is good for all three of them until David's mother meets Mr. Murdstone (Rathbone). David and Peggotty have a bad feeling about Murdstone right from the beginning, even though Murdstone acts pleasant as he's courting Clara, David's mother.  David says that Murdstone seems like the black panther from his animal book.Rathbone and Elizabeth Allen

One day David and Peggotty take a trip to visit Peggotty's relatives. David has a grand time with them.  He returns home to find that his mother has married Mr. Murdstone, and Murdstone's harsh sister has moved into the house and taken charge of running the household. Clara is not too happy about this arrangement but she is too sweet-natured to object. She says she couldn't bear to live with coldness and unkindness.  Unfortunately, that's just what she gets from Mr. and Miss Murdstone.  Murdstone is no longer the kind gentleman caller who courted her, but is now stern and strict, not allowing any display of emotion. He doesn't permit Clara to embrace David, claiming that she's spoiling him. David's life has become a living hell; he is forced to recite his lessons for Murdstone, who makes him nervous and causes him to make mistakes. Instead of encouraging David and helping him, Murdstone beats him, calling him "obstinate" and saying that he has occasioned his mother worry and torment. David always calls his stepfather "Sir" or "Mr. Murdstone"--never "Pa."

Rathbone as Murdstone
Murdstone readies his whipping stick
Elizabeth Allen, Freddie Bartholomew, and Rathbone
David recites his lessons

Some months later David learns that he is going to get a baby brother or sister, but both Clara and the baby die in childbirth. With David's mother now gone, Miss Murdstone fires Peggotty, and Murdstone says to David, "I'm afraid I've no place for you in my house now. You have a rebellious disposition. It must be conformed to the ways of the working world. It must be bent. Even broken if necessary." And so, Murdstone sends David to London to work and arranges for David's lodging with Mr. Micawber's family. Micawber and David become friends for life. Micawber has a cash flow problem and ends up in debtors prison. After his release the Micawber family leaves London, and David resolves to find his Aunt Betsy Trotwood.

Mr. and Miss Murdstone taking verbal abuse from Aunt BetsyHaving been robbed of everything he owns, young David walks all the way to Dover--72 miles. By the time he gets to his aunt's home, his clothes are rags. Although Betsy Trotwood doesn't like boys, she takes pity on poor David and gives him a bath and clean clothes. She then contacts Murdstone, and he and his sister come to Betsy's house to fetch David. Betsy stands up to them, saying she knows how they treated Clara, and how Murdstone broke Clara's heart, how at first he was smooth and silky with her, worshipped her, doted on her little boy. He was to be a father to the boy, and they were all to live together in a garden of roses. "And when you had made sure of her, you began to break her, like a poor bird in a cage, tormented the girl through her boy. You gave her wounds that she died from." Chastened, the Murdstones leave and are not heard from again. Aunt Betsy's stern countenance softens and she embraces David.

Aunt Betsy takes good care of David, and sends him to school in Canterbury, where he meets the Wickfields and that very 'umble and scheming Dickens character Uriah Heep. As a young man, David finally rises above his misfortune and eventually marries Agnes Wickfield. 

Fans of Dickens' novel will not be disappointed with the film version of "David Copperfield." It contains nearly all the elements of the novel, including the wonderful, memorable characters that Dickens stuffed his novels with. MGM's casting of the film was inspired. Basil Rathbone is splendid as David's cruel, abusive stepfather. Edna May Oliver as Aunt Betsy, Elizabeth Allan as David's sweet mother, W.C. Fields as Micawber, and Roland Young as Uriah Heep. "David Copperfield" was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Assistant Director (Joseph Newman) and Best Film Editing (Robert J. Kern) in 1935. "Mutiny on the Bounty" won Best Picture that year.

"David Copperfield" made a star of Freddie Bartholomew, a young lad from Dublin, Ireland. He went on to appear in such classics as Anna Karenina (1935), Little Lord Fauntleroy (1936), and Captains Courageous (1937).Murdstone thrashing young David

In his autobiography Rathbone wrote that the scene in which he had to thrash Freddie Bartholomew was an extremely difficult one. He was very fond of Freddie, and when the thrashing scene was over, Rathbone took Freddie in his arms and kissed him. "When the picture was released I received good reviews and a very heavy fan mail -- all of it abusive!" (In and Out of Character, p. 138)  Rathbone had played the villain so well, that he was now typecast  as a villain.

When Rathbone was first offered the role of Murdstone, he refused it, believing that he couldn't play a part he loathed. "You can't play a man who's poison to you." In an interview Rathbone stated "I refused the part of Murdstone five times and finally took it as one takes any desperate chance--with my heart quaking and my fingers crossed.   When Rathbone saw the film, he hated the thought that he could look so cruel. "I even hated George Cukor at times--childishly, illogically--for the things he made me do. . . . Whatever credit's due belongs not to me, but to him. . . . He can get anything out of anyone--the tenderest sentiment, the bitterest cruelty. He wanted cruelty from me and he got it." ("It's Cheers for Basil Rathbone Now" Motion Picture, August, 1935, pp. 32, 73, 76)

See more pictures from David Copperfield on Page Two.

Cast

Credits

Basil Rathbone......................Murdstone
Freddie Bartholomew.....David, as child
Elizabeth Allan............Mrs. Copperfield
W.C. Fields...............................Micawber
Lionel Barrymore..............Dan Peggotty
Maureen O'Sullivan.........................Dora
Frank Lawton..................David, as adult
Madge Evans................................Agnes
Edna May Oliver................Aunt Betsey
Lewis Stone......................Mr. Wickfield
Roland Young.......................Uriah Heep
Elsa Lanchester...........................Clickett
Jean Cadell......................Mrs. Micawber
Jessie Ralph...................Nurse Peggotty
Lennox Pawle.............................Mr. Dick
Violet Kemble-Cooper...Jane Murdstone
Una O"Connor...............Mrs. Gummidge
John Buckler......................................Ham
Hugh Williams.........................Steerforth
Ivan Simpson..............................Limmiter
Herbert Mundin..............................Barkis
Fay Chaldecott.......Little Emily, as child
Marilyn Knowlden........Agnes, as child
Florine McKinney...........Emily, as adult
Harry Beresford.......................Dr. Chillip
Mabel Colcord........................Mary Ann
Hugh Walpole...................................Vicar
Renee Gadd.......................................Janet
Arthur Treacher...Dishonest Coachman
Margaret Seddon..........................bit part
Production Co. .............................MGM
Producer....................David O. Selznick
Director.............................George Cukor
Screenplay...............Howard Estabrook,
     HughWalpole  (based on the novel
     by Charles Dickens)
Cinematographer..........Oliver T. Marsh 
Editor................................Robert J. Kern
Music Composer.........Herbert Stothart
Art Director....................Cedric Gibbons
Special Effects...........Slavko Vorkapich
Costume Design....................Dolly Tree

Images on this page and page two are from the film "David Copperfield," copyright MGM.

 

 

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All original content is Marcia Jessen, 2007