Sunday, July 25, 2010

100 years, 100 films 26: David Copperfield (1935)

This is the sort of movie where you can just while away a pleasant two hours playing, "hey, I know that actor." It's a perfectly solid piece of entertainment - it moves at a decent pace, the actors all give solid performances (although the viewer does spend longer thinking, "hey, cool, it's Basil Rathbone," than actually being impressed by the performance of Basil Rathbone,) the cinematography is all good. But there's just nothing impressive, or outstanding, about it as a film. It's good, but at no point does it even begin to strive for greatness. The film mistakes the fact that it's a reasonably faithful adaptation of Dickens for proof of its inherent quality.

I just don't think George Cukor is the right director for this sort of movie. Or, to put it another way, he is all too much the right director for this kind of movie - he doesn't take any risks, he makes everything staid and respectful and terribly, terribly pleasant. Out of all of the A-list directors from Hollywood's Golden Age, Cukor strikes me as the one most content to just put a camera in front of some characters, and have them talk. This works great when the people talking have incredible dialogue to say (The Philadelphia Story), or have amazing on-screen chemistry together (Kathrine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib) or when one of the actors is giving an incredible performance (Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday). But when the film is an adaptation of a literary classic, it should be directed by someone a bit less toothless.

Compare this Dickens adaptation to one made eleven years later - David Lean's Great Expectations. It might surprise some people to know this, but there was a time when David Lean didn't get "elaborate set decorations" and "good films" confused. This was a time when Lean was an actual cinematic artist - he managed to take the book Great Expectations, and rather than just simply transferring it to the screen, he translated the feeling of the book - the atmosphere, the tone - into the language of cinema. This left him with a film that wasn't simply "a faithful literary adaptation," but was also "a great film." Cukor, on the other hand, just transferred the book to the screen, with no real attempt at translation. What he was left with was a hollow and shallow "good film".

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