Volume I: Narrative History


Chapter 4 (1911): The Greatest Thanhouser Ever

The most ambitious Thanhouser Company effort to date was manifested in the three-reel version of Charles Dickens' immortal David Copperfield, the story of an English lad's tribulation-filled childhood and maturity. As the Sales Company program could not accommodate the release of all three reels on the same day, Thanhouser gave each reel its own title, endeavored to have each tell a story which would stand alone when shown, and designated them The Early Life of David Copperfield, Little Em'ly and David Copperfield, and The Loves of David Copperfield. Release dates were set for consecutive Tuesdays, beginning on October 17, 1911. Directed by George O. Nichols, the cast included Marie Eline, Frank H. Crane, Alphonse Ethier, Maude Fealy, Mignon Anderson, William Garwood, Harry Benham, Viola Alberti, Flora Foster, and Anna Seer.

Flora Foster, who took the title role in The Early Life of David Copperfield, at one time was known as "The Biograph Kid." She was an actress for Thanhouser during the 1911-1913 years, although she was rarely mentioned in publicity. Her talents in the motion picture field were never to mature, for in 1914, at the age of 16, she died of heart failure. Maude Fealy, a well-known stage actress, worked before the Thanhouser camera intermittently. Much more would be heard of her two years later in 1913. Alphonse Ethier, an older man, was a Thanhouser stock player for many years and was seen in numerous minor and supporting roles not credited in publicity.

The Morning Telegraph found the three reels to be little more than a series of tableau-like scenes in a wax museum, tied together with subtitles. That reviewer was in the distinct minority however, for others loved it. The detailed review, covering all three reels, in The Moving Picture World is typical:

In the filming of Dickens these reels are a revelation. The best ideals and fondest expectations of both the friends of the moving picture and the readers of Dickens have been realized. This may sound like a reckless compliment, but after one sees character after character in the famous story step from the printed page into life and motion, after one has felt the presence of the Dickens spirit and atmosphere radiating from the screen into the deepest recesses of the heart, after one has had that happy hour of laughter and tears which the great novelist knows so well to be so, the function of criticism is wholly suspended and there remains nothing for the critic but to record, always imperfectly in such a case, the superabundant merits of the production.

Other film makers, among the best in the field, have attempted to give us Dickens in pictures and, though there are good points in The Cricket on the Hearth, Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Our Mutual Friend, and A Christmas Carol, they do not even approach the present films in the power of cinematographic characterization, the sustained excellence, the attention to detail, the sympathetic and complete understanding of the soul of Dickens.

If Dickens ever wrote out of the fullness of his heart, it was when he told of the misfortunes and struggles of the child and boy David, when he describes the hopes, fears and ambitions of his youth and the friendships and loves of his early manhood. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the story has such a strong hold on the readers of Dickens and why its characters are so well known and so much admired. These very facts, however, constituted a grave danger for the Dickens student, who intended to render the charm and beauty of the work visible to every eye, including the eye that had never conned a page of the story. It was of the first importance to reduce and condense. And thus this reducing and condensing was done with painstaking care and with an eye to the preserving of the essential features of the story. Adaptation was apt to become a mutilation and a matter of special offense to the readers of Dickens.

It was here the art of the makers of the film achieved a most convincing success. Every one of the characters so dear to our recollection stands out strikingly and picturesquely; the villainous curmudgeon Murdstone, the lovable Peggoty, the handsome seducer Steerforth, the sterling Aunt Betsey, the unhappy Wickfield, the unspeakable Uriah Heep, the unctuous and unique Micawber. The women of the story deserve special mention: Dora, the "doll-wife," was an embodiment of the Dickens character, and Dickens himself could not have chosen more fortunately and exactly; the same holds true of Em'ly and Agnes. Even the minor characters such as poor Dick, Mrs. Gummidge, Ham Peggoty, David's mother, Creakle, the servant in Steerforth's employ, and all the others are sketched with consummate skill, a sure indication, by the way, of the artistic excellence that pervades the entire production from the first inch of film to the last. Even the little dog Jip that threatened poor David's marital happiness is there, and it is a real Jip too.

Of course, the Dickens readers will be out in full force to see this picture and they will urge others to come, and the Dickens shelves in the libraries will be depleted. But what about the great majority that have never seen the Dickens book and know nothing whatever about David Copperfield? Is the story of the films told in such a way that they too will understand, appreciate and enjoy? Is there enough of the subtle charm of Dickens on the screen to steal into their hearts and make them disciples? The answer is emphatically "yes." The man, woman or child that has not read a lot of Dickens will feel the Dickens spirit and the Dickens atmosphere, and as a first enjoyment of the story is often the keenest, they lose nothing by becoming acquainted with the great story teller through the medium of the picture. There are stories within stories in David Copperfield, but the best ones are all in the film and they are all dramatic and finely staged.

The scene showing the wreck of the vessel on which Steerforth was a passenger, the desperate efforts of Ham Peggoty to find the path through the stormy waves and save a life, the drowning of both Ham and Steerforth, and their floating bodies in the surf challenge the best display of realism in a photoplay. In the portrayal of the emotional scenes, in which the peculiar Dickens mixture of human pathos makes such exacting demands on the stage director and the actors, these films are beyond all praise. I must content myself with mentioning only two - one the Em'ly-Steerforth episode, the other the unmasking of Uriah Heep in lawyer Wickfield's office.

The Thanhouser Company has set a new standard in the filming of Dickens, and I very readily believe their assurance that this was with them but a labor of love and that, imbued with a true Dickens' enthusiasm, they have spent six months in producing these reels. Time is of the essence of success.

While it would undoubtedly have had many advantages to release the three films at once, the film makers had made the best of an otherwise unfortunate situation by skillfully using the autobiographical character as a basis of division - The Childhood, The Boyhood, and The Manhood of David Copperfield. That was a happy idea, although the full effect of this excellent production cannot be secured except by showing the three reels in one night. A lecture would go well with it if it were featured as "An Evening with Dickens."


Copyright © 1995 Q. David Bowers. All Rights Reserved.