David Copperfield (1913 film) British, Kenneth Ware, 3 Davids (child, youth, adult), silent, a contender for the title of first British feature film, black and white
See here for a full listing of adaptations.
This is the fourth film adaptation of DC we know of. I am not altogether certain of this: I lack access to Bolton’s archives, for example. But as far as I can tell, that is the case, and thus the 1913 DC is the earliest adaptation from which footage survives. What luck, then, that we have about half of it! An hour and four minutes, out of an original runtime of over two hours. One wonders how, actually. The BFI’s synopsis is useful in several other respects (that run-time figure, for example, and it also hosts some clips), but doesn’t give the history of their holding.
The 1913 DC is either the first or second British attempt at filming the novel, and the film also has a serious claim to being the first British feature-length film. In that respect alone it’s deeply significant to British film history, and of course it’s very interesting that people rushed to undertake Dickens’ material and this particular novel so early, when the book poses several challenges to adaptation. Perhaps there’s an answer as to why in these productions’ very earliness: it may have been too soon for the makers to have a sense (whether conventional wisdom on this subject is true or not) of the limitations of their medium.
This is possibly the only surviving silent film treatment of the book (I’ve yet to find the ‘22 and ‘24, but then I don’t really know where to look). The BFI draws attention to director Bentley’s other Dickensian work, which does significantly contextualise this production:
“The choice of subject was a natural one for Bentley, who had made something of a career as a Dickensian character actor before turning his hand to directing. It was this that had drawn him to the attention of producer Cecil Hepworth, also an ardent Dickens fan. But the subject was also strategically useful – and of a kind with other early feature films – in being based on a well-known, tried-and-trusted source. Given the extra investment required from producers and exhibitors to make these long films, a ‘prestige’ subject with built-in audience appeal was desirable.”
Built-in audience familiarity and appeal, I’ll give them, but I’m slightly wary of describing Dickens as a ‘prestige’ subject at this stage. I’m not altogether certain this isn’t a back-reading of a cultural position that actually took significant time and labour to establish. ‘Dickens’ was, by the 1910s, both a network of associations and memes very active in popular consciousness and somewhat in intellectual disrepute, if we’re to believe Chesterton about the ascendency of Wilde’s deeply hostile reading. It’s my impression that the generality of people considering Dickens literary, an appropriate subject of study and pillar of the ‘national canon’, came rather later, crucially after enough time had passed to enable people to re-envision the actual man as middle class, pastless and apolitical. The posthumous closure of his surviving publishing and political endeavours may have been necessary to his re-appraisal.
At the end of this review I will include a large number of pictures I took of this film. They are crude phone affairs, but as I’m not sure whether this information is readily available to international scholars in any other form, and as I really don’t think any legal issues can possibly still exist, I offer them.
This film, or what’s left of it, is available for free at all BFI Mediatheques. I believe you can also purchase some kind of online membership from the BFI and thus view it elsewhere.
Major Changes from Book
The most phatic possible thing to say is that this film is ‘much shorter’ than the book. And yet the film does feel abridged. Perhaps this is because it covers so many of the book’s plot points in a contracted fashion, then really slows down to give us some scenes in full. Some, though not all, of this queer pacing can be attributed to the loss of half of the original footage. Strangely, given this severe editing, the cuts aren’t obvious. The story holds together: given my unfamiliarity with films from this era, I attributed any little inconsistencies to silent film’s conventions. I didn’t even realise this wasn’t the full film until I turned to write this summary. I do think it’s editing at work. Someone must have made this version to run at this length. It holds together too well to be anything but a cut. Possibly the BFI did this, in order to present the film as a complete and approachable artefact. Yet given the unedited condition of the Mediatheque’s ‘66 DC episode 3, I really can’t imagine them doing so (and if they did, they really ought to have said as much!).
Thus I’m not certain whether, in the original cut, we would have seen David interacting with Steerforth as a schoolboy (he may have been in the classroom scene, undeclared, but the film didn’t call attention to this in any fashion). In the version I saw, David accidentally re-meets Steerforth as a young man in a pub when they’re forced to share a bench and David recognises him. This is our introduction to the character. Upon returning from Yarmouth, David “immediately falls foul of Mr Murdstone, who sends him away from his mother to school”. It seems likely that this was the case even before any cuts were made, because this text comes from an intertitle. I suppose people could have added new intertitles while making cuts–I’m not sure whether this was a common practice. Either way, in the version I saw (and very possibly also in the original version), Dickens’ rather delicate depiction of Murdstone’s gendered emotional abuse has become an energetic and colourful Incident.
David’s coming to live with Betsey takes quite a different shape in this version as well. A title card tells us that “[a]fter many happy years spent with my Aunt at Dover, I am sent to Mr Wickfield, at Canterbury, to finish my education.” The nature of this education is necessarily vague, as is much about David’s move to London. Presumably the director wanted to establish a relationship between David and Betsey, and without description to do so, instead gave them time. What the text could describe quite easily, the film must enunciate to make believable. This way of breaking up the story also gives the film a chance to shift from a child David to an adolescent David, and to give its three David actors each a fair amount of time. Because David comes to Canterbury as an adolescent, he can’t know Agnes and Uriah when he’s young. The nature of their interactions thus shifts considerably. Coming so belatedly, David also can’t associate with the Strongs–and not having to include their arc is perhaps another purpose served by skipping his school days. Dickens himself ‘montages’ over some of David’s youth, but not before establishing Canterbury and the relationships associated with that period very firmly.
The film leaves us alone with Agnes and Uriah, as we never were in the book. Uriah’s canonically mercenary pursuit of Agnes here becomes quite lusty, in a Snidely Whiplash fashion. Steady Agnes becomes the sort of woman who’d slap him. It’s interesting that this reworking of the novel’s Sedgewickian erotic triangulation assigns Agnes David’s aggressive physical defense. David is shown to be aggressive in this adaptation at another point, so it’s not done to spare him that, or to negate the text’s violence by assigning it to a more sympathetic perpetrator.
Perhaps the most remarkable alteration is this film’s decision to–fairly strongly, I think–characterise Uriah via the visual conventions of anti-Semitic stereotype. His omnipresent white neck-cloth becomes a tallit, with the fringe sticking out at the bottom of his waistcoat. Of course this red-headed, mercenary, anti-social invader in the bosom of the bourgeoisie has long attracted some anti-Semitic associations (Dr Katz reminded me of a relevant article, “‘red-headed animal’: Race, Sexuality and Dickens’s Uriah Heep”), but to actually film that reading and literalise those connotations is as odd a project as the 1921 Astra Nielsen female-Hamlet. Perhaps the very earliness of this project enables what I think of as the sort of out-there take one arrives at when there are already many standard versions. Or perhaps this is simply visual language initially derived from anti-Semitic tropes, which has now come to be rather freer-floating, serving as a disassociated signifier of conniving evil. In terms of physicality, this production stages Uriah something like the vampire in Nosfertau. Is this derived from stage conventions, I wonder?
The overriding impression one gets (and I suspect this has a lot to do with pacing) is of a version of DC that eschews the text’s Proustian affects and arrives at melodrama. I don’t mean that in an entirely negative sense. This plot is, however, undeniably simplified. Uriah’s slow, spidery scheme becomes “Uriah steals the deeds belonging to Betsey Trotwood on which she had hoped to raise money.” These financial bawlderisations, like this Uriah’s pantomime-villain postures, undermine the threat Uriah poses and to confuse the nature of that threat. I’ve not seen such a bald rendering of Uriah’s misappropriations since the Dancy Hallmark adaptation’s ‘jewel theft’. The intertitles can have a slightly childish tone, and the source text’s coincidences are rendered bluntly. Uriah and David meet Micawber while walking in the street. The difference between this versions of events and the text’s isn’t very great, but you can see how Micawber’s pausing and double-taking when David is sitting in a house with a large window to the main street for a few hours is that slight bit more natural. The difference between melodrama and novelistic registers derives from just such nuances and small degrees of temporal slack.
When this film shows something that the book, due to being grounded in David’s POV, can’t, it largely does so to emphasize its chosen themes and to ensure audiences’ comprehension–to shore up the limited exposition its intertitles can offer. We see much more of Steerforth and Emily’s courtship, and we also see their actual flight. We see an officer deciding to track a desperate, incoherent Emily, and we see Rosa confronting her before David arrives. Emily is played like Mad Ophelia here.
Per the BFI analysis, “[t]he relatively small number of intertitles shows that some knowledge of the story was assumed (although missing material in the BFI National Archive’s print does create some confusion).” It makes you consider what each production’s audience knew about this text beforehand, and the degree to which all of them rely on received ideas of this story, the Dickensian and Victoriana. At what point do adaptations of DC stop assuming audiences know the book? At what point do they come to rely on the general audience’s primary knowledge of Dickens coming to them via adaptations? One must also consider the degree to which this knowledge, at various points, consisted of generalities, which are often lazy and serve the interests of cultural hegemonies, versus specific knowledge of these characters, incidents and plots.
Major Differences From and Commonalities With Other Adaptations
I’m quite unclear on how popular this adaptation was, and whether large audiences and/or the people making successive adaptations would have heard about or seen it. The point at which you can start expecting modern film-makers to have access to earlier adaptations is also unclear to me. Would you say the 80s, with VHS? Did BBC insiders making an adaptation even have access to previous BBC serials? How often were things like this re-screened, or television serials re-run? The Hollywood film must have had a market penetration and thus an influence unrivaled by other adaptations for years.
The film’s youngish, pretty Betsey is rather surprising. For all she intimidated young Clara, though she’s his aunt Betsey could very well be almost of an age with David Senior, and thus only in her late 40s when David comes to live with her. She’s usually played older by later adaptations, and costumed, styled etc. more like Judi Dench’s character in Cranford than like Gillian Anderson’s in Bleak House.
As I said of this production in my review of the ‘66, “[t]he ways the silent film forces the creative team to pay close attention to the text are interesting, and I believe they parallel the Italian production’s efforts to do the work to reimagine the text for an audience that they don’t presume in some sense ‘already knows’ the writer, period, and to some extent the story.” This production goes for Chaplinesque physical comedy. It includes the book’s waiter scene, which no other production does. We also spend a lot of time with David alone, on long roads and against vast architecture and natural landscapes. In the absence of words, the child’s smallness and vulnerability evoke considerable pathos. We also see David being told his mother’s died, and the scene dwells on his reactions. And as I said, the film gives more time to Steerforth and Emily, probably at least in part so that plot details the film considers crucial are very clear. The logic of this decision could be analogous to that behind David’s spending ‘happy years’ with Betsey.
The BFI write-up speaks of the use of ‘real book settings’ as the director’s gimmick, but those settings do a ton of work for this production. You can also see the deep appeal of shooting the ‘real places’ from a book. This film offers a literary tourism appeal none of the others can, seeking to help you understand and connect with the text. Other adaptations aren’t interested in mediating and deepening that relationship. They are films in their own right; this is a dramatisation of the book. No other DC does as much with physical culture as this one.
No other DC I’ve seen uses three Davids, either (child, adolescent and young man). There are almost always two, just as I’ve only ever seen one Uriah (and very often, one rather than two Steerforths). It’s quite surprising to see this actively brawling young David pitching back against the cruel boys he works with at the factory, even if it’s cognisant with the text. This is the David who’d pick fights with the insulting butcher’s boy out of pride, the one who still has a trace of Nicholas Nickleby about him. Yet most productions want to flatten David’s period of poverty into one of abjection, to make him more of a one-note victim.
Focuses, and the Production’s Points of Anxiety
The production’s medium affects its focuses in very decided ways. If this is in some sense intended as a ‘visualisation’ of the novel rather than an independent dramatic product, we can see the appeal of its very representational strategy, which is interested in hitting the book’s beats and staging a variety of tableaux. The production makes a startlingly ambitious attempt to cover a ton of plot elements, perhaps more than any other adaptation. In so doing, and because of other questions of register, it sacrifices depth and becomes a pictorial, and again, at times melodramatic treatment of the material. Again, this may be the cuts talking. For me, the film works best where it takes its time. I’ll discuss this point more in the following Material Culture section, but I don’t recall another DC to which settings and props are so important.
The age of the production also shows through in its plotting. Like some early play versions, the 1913 film is more concerned with Little Emily than almost anything else (Dickens Day 2018 will feature a paper on the early importance of this narrative element to theatrical stagings, if you care to learn more). Dr Katz reminded me that when Dickens himself adapted DC for readings, he pulled out the parallel stories of David-Dora and Steerforth-Emily: two love arcs, one tragic and one comic. This decision could have guided theatrical treatments. Due to this focus, the 1913 production stages more desire between Emily and Steerforth in order to support its seduction arc. It also performs a similar intensification and simplification on Uriah and Agnes’s relationship.
To me, focusing overmuch on Emily feels almost like ‘misunderstanding’ the text. But I wonder how much our understanding of, for example, the ‘core’ of Shakespeare plays has shifted with time? I’ve started to think about how differently period drama is staged than Shakespeare, in terms of what a production is conceived of as doing and what a staging is conceived of as drawing out of a text. That’s work I’ve almost never seen a period drama consciously do? What does a given DC have to say to the original, to our relationship with that text, and to the world?
In terms of my thesis-related research concern, this production generates charm largely via its humour. There’s not much nuance to the romance, and while the material culture elements are very strong they’re not in themselves staged with the fascination of, say, Howl’s titular moving castle. They don’t generate charm via their specificity. The adaptations other key source of charm is perhaps the Davids: a handsome young man with silent film’s hypermobile and dramatic expressiveness, and before that, a winning chubby-cheeked child, at turns poignantly alone in the world, indignant and bemused.
Settings and Material Culture
In so many ways, this production benefits from its temporal proximity to the source text. I had no idea what a Dickensian stage coach would have looked like (the huge size surprised me), much less what the process of loading and unloading it might have involved. The look of the Peggotys’ boat house, the cork life-vests, the whole process of the shipwreck rescue operation and the information-loaded clothing all derive, I feel, from people involved in the production having any embodied memory of what these things looked like, and how the patterns of work involving them went. My interest isn’t merely academic: these processes added a really unaccustomed richness and unfamiliarity to the familiar visual language of what we now think the Victorian era was like. I wasn’t watching with an eye to this, but Dr Katz suggested one might ask how informed by the original illustrations this production’s visuals were. My sense is that the production might not actually be calling back to that work, because Edwardian audiences often considered the original illustrations coarse and cut or replaced them, not seeing them as part of the coherent artifact of the text.
A silent movie relies a great deal on actors’ movement, but it relies perhaps equally on environments. These do so much work here. As I said in the my review of the ‘66, the “1913 does a better job [than the ‘66 of] showing the Micawber’s waning fortunes via having the environment change as they pawn their belongings.” The Wickfield house perhaps too grand in some respects, but overall the houses are all distinct, and all ‘speak’. I think settings in this film do more than they do in most modern movies. The 1913’s settings not only generate striking tableaux, they also do a great deal to generate mood.
The BFI has been very bad about citing its sources. (That’s rich for me to say, but this has been an unpaid blog post, so you know what you’re getting.) To find out more, I might start by contacting the BFI or the person who wrote their analysis of this production, Bryony Dixon, to find out how she came by her information. One might also try looking up this director and producer, and also coming at it via the angle of early British film history.
Some shots from a funny short film the BFI had on Dickens’ London, which for some reason had several characters riding the bus together in probably the most ambitious crossover event of all time.