Saturday, February 14, 2009

Some Happy Talent

My cold persists. So, being largely without the resources still to read properly, I determined today to huddle on my sofa, wrapped in blankets and hoods and hats and scarves -- as it's cold in this house -- and drink tumblers of orange juice and watch old movies. I've recorded a number from Turner Classic Movies. It's "31 Days of Oscar" month, and there are great good things to be had. Reviewing the selection, I passed over less familiar stuff and decided I was fit only for the company old friends.

There have been many versions of Dickens on film. There have been books written just on this subject. For me, there are only three or four I could watch as often as I might read the books. None is as dear to me as George Cukor's 1935 film of David Copperfield. Hugh Walpole wrote the screenplay. Selznick produced it. Cukor directed it. I saw the movie long before I read the novel. Having seen it many times since, and having of course read and loved the book, there is not a scene I do not know by heart. It is a remarkably true and good adaptation; beautifully photographed, handsomely produced, astonishingly well cast.

I have often thought, watching it, that there could never be, for example, a better Aunt Betsey than Edna May Oliver, a more perfect Mr. Dick than Lennox Pawle, a more magnificent Mcawber than the great W. C. Fields. Roland Young simply was Uriah Heep. All the supporting players are amazingly right. Watching the movie today though, I was struck by how perfect, and perfectly lovely, young Maureen O'Sullivan is as Dora. Dora is the worst of Dickens in a way; the least sympathetic type, for contemporary readers, of the prefect child-bride. David's disillusion in Dora comes too late for us, we tend to find her insufferable the moment she's met. We dread the marriage. We want to knock poor David over the head, point to long-suffering Agnes, and push Dora off the scene. We're wrong to think this though. Dora is exactly as Dickens found her. We may not sympathize, but Copperfield loves her, as Dickens did, and our objections are pointless. Dickens needs her, just as he needs her death, for Copperfield to come right in the end. Dickens himself fell in love, when young and unknown, with just such a girl. Denied the chance to marry her, because he was too poor and a nobody, decades later, quite the somebody, he arranged to meet his sweetheart again. She was by that time a fat, silly woman of middle years and Dickens was thunderstruck to find her so changed. It seems ridiculous, that Dickens should ever have idealized such a girl, ever loved her, ever kept the memory of her young even as the actual woman was turned by time into a perfectly nice, if uninteresting person. What could he have been thinking? Watching Cukor's film today, and seeing Maureen O'Sullivan so radiantly pretty, so light and silly and genuinely amusing, it ceases to be a mystery at all. Even on her all too necessary deathbed, O'Sullivan's Dora is exactly as a lover might choose to remember such a girl; sweet, featherheaded, and quite beautiful.

That's the reward of watching a familiar film again, just as rereading a great book offers new views of a familiar scene, who knew I could come to find Dickens' poor Dora charming, even moving at the end? Thanks to the shades of Maureen O'Sullivan, George Cukor and the rest. What a lovely day to be home with a miserable cold.

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