One of the most delightful surprises of the year is this DVD release of the very rarely seen production of “David Copperfield,” created in 1911 by the Thanhouser Company of New Rochelle, N.Y., and presented here courtesy of a beautifully restored 35mm print by Italy’s Museo Nazionale del Cinema.
Originally released as a three-part serial, this “David Copperfield” runs a compact 40 minutes. Not surprisingly, a great deal of Dickens’ sprawling narrative has been significantly compacted to accommodate the very tight running time – most notably, Micawber does not appear until the final stretch of the film, and is only introduced as David’s “eccentric friend.” However, what emerges is a series of beautifully realized vignettes that captures the spirit of the Dickens novel, albeit with some abruptly jagged edges (the fate of Little Em’ly is not mentioned, while Dora mysteriously dies minutes after she and David are married).
Director George O. Nichols keeps the pace moving briskly, and the old-fashioned theatrical-style emoting of the early 1910s silent movies fits perfectly around the highly melodramatic nature of the story’s emotional disruptions. A few performances manage to emerge with genuine emotion: Viola Alberti’s spunky Aunt Betsey (who hilariously swings a mean broom when chasing away David’s evil stepfather), William Russell’s doomed romantic mariner Ham Pegotty, and (in a genuinely curious casting gamble that paid off) the pretty young Flora Foster, who donned male clothing to play David as a physically sensitive boy.
The nitrate print used for this restoration was from the Italian release, and the restoration maintains the Italian-language intertitles; English subtitles provide much-needed translation for those who are absent of Italian fluency. Philip Carli composed and performed the intelligent music score that accompanies this highly entertaining cinematic antique.