By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
If Charles Dickens were alive today and taking his pick of 21st-century pop media, I‘d bet that movies would rank low on his list. Ardent populist though he was, Dickens thought, wrote and read aloud to his adoring audiences in installments: His instinctively episodic sensibility would have made him a natural for serial television, as would his genius for sketching characters as caricatures, breathing them over time into teeming human life. But cinema? Likely as not, he’d have dismissed film as too compressed, too much the one-shot deal, to encompass his endlessly expanding canvas of characters. As one critic noted of David Lean‘s Great Expectations, “It is Dickens, nothing but Dickens, but not the whole Dickens.”
From the heyday of the silent era (the first Dickens adaptation, The Death of Nancy Sykes, was shot in 1897) to the 1970s, directors from Ealing to Hollywood have begged to differ. Now, beginning December 21, the American Cinematheque will screen 13 Dickens adaptations, made between 1911 and 1970 -- including two 16mm silent programs, with live piano accompaniment, that include the 1911 A Tale of Two Cities and a long-lost print of the 1922 Oliver Twist with Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin.
Melodrama came naturally to Dickens, so it’s not hard to understand the attraction his work held for filmmakers with delusions of grandeur, notably producer David Selznick, who appointed himself Dickens-interpreter-in-chief. And Lean, of course, whose Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) are not only the cream of this crop, but arguably the cream of Lean‘s crop, after which he became a legend and drowned in epic hubris. Both films play with the genius for the telling image that makes Lean’s best work feel like the best of silent movies. Both, too, betray the sympathy he shared with Dickens for suffering, victimized boys. Who that has seen either of these films as a child could forget Pip watching the rodent nibbling at Miss Havisham‘s moldering wedding cake, or the shadow that falls across Oliver’s pinched, upturned face as he asks for more, or the dog furiously scrabbling at Bill Sykes‘ door as the villain clubs his Nancy to death for trying to rescue Oliver?
Masterpiece though it was, Oliver Twist got Lean in trouble with the Jewish community over Alec Guinness’ rendition of Fagin, and even sparked a riot in postwar Germany. Was Guinness‘ performance anti-Semitic? His makeup certainly was: Based on the original drawings by George Cruikshank (hostility toward Jews was rife in 19th-century England, and persists, albeit watered-down and discreetly expressed, into the 21st), his huge beak of a nose, unruly beard and shifty eyes must, a scant three years after the end of World War II, have reminded audiences of the notorious Jud-Suss and other Nazi propaganda cartoons. Still, Guinness’ Fagin was no more villainous than any other Dickens blackguard, and certainly less than the odious Sykes, garishly overplayed by the bug-eyed Robert Newton. And neither performance was more grotesque or eccentric than the others that Dickens movies generated: Claude Rains, anguished and sinister as the drug-addicted priest in Stuart Walker‘s cheesy The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which makes over Dickens’ unfinished last novel as a straight-up Universal horror picture; the reliable, portly Francis L. Sullivan, who as the Beadle Bumble in Oliver Twist got to intone, “The law is a ass” with such aggrieved conviction; and, most bizarrely of all, W.C. Fields, mugging away and striving in vain for good nature as Micawber in George Cukor‘s David Copperfield.
After the 1970s, the movie industry on both sides of the Atlantic more or less lost interest in Dickens, except for the odd musical. Given the steep decline, since that contested decade, in directors (never mind distributors) who are seriously interested in making films that explore character, it’s no surprise that no one outside of television thinks about adapting or remaking Dickens these days. So grab the opportunity, grab the kids and get yourself over to the Cinematheque, where, among other titles, you can see three Oliver Twists, two Christmas Carols, one Nicholas Nickleby and a partridge in a pear tree.
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