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David Copperfield (1913)


Main image of David Copperfield (1913)
35mm, black & white, 7,500 ft, silent
DirectorThomas Bentley
Production CompanyHepworth Manufacturing Company
ProducerThomas Bentley
ScriptThomas Bentley
Original NovelCharles Dickens

Cast: Eric Desmond, Len Bethel, Kenneth Ware (David as boy, youth and man); Alma Taylor (Dora Spenlow); Amy Verity (Little Em'ly); Tom Butt (Mr Murdstone); H. Collins (Wilkins Micawber); Miss Harcourt (Betsy Trotwood); Jack Hulcup (Uriah Heep)

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The eventful life of David Copperfield from his unhappy boyhood and schooling to his eventful youth and adulthood.

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With an original running time of over two hours, Thomas Bentley's 1913 adaptation of Dickens' David Copperfield was a seriously ambitious undertaking. It could be considered the first British feature film (although three other titles of well over an hour precede it: 1912's Lorna Doone and 1913's The Battle of Waterloo and Ivanhoe). At 7,500 feet, it was the longest British film to date on its release.

The choice of subject was a natural one for Bentley, who had made something of a career as a Dickensian character actor before turning his hand to directing. It was this that had drawn him to the attention of producer Cecil Hepworth, also an ardent Dickens fan. But the subject was also strategically useful - and of a kind with other early feature films - in being based on a well-known, tried-and-trusted source. Given the extra investment required from producers and exhibitors to make these long films, a 'prestige' subject with built-in audience appeal was desirable.

Bentley's credentials as a Dickensian are displayed in the opening titles cards, as is his basic selling point, the use of the actual locations in which the novel was set. His adaptation follows quite closely the narrative structure of the book, with the titles of each section quoting Dickens' own chapter headings. The story is divided into three sections - David the child, David the boy, David the man - with each played by a different actor, as in nearly all subsequent adaptations. The relatively small number of intertitles shows that some knowledge of the story was assumed (although missing material in the BFI National Archive's print does create some confusion).

Bentley takes considerable care over staging. The photographic quality, composition and use of exterior locations are excellent - the seaside settings are particularly picturesque - while his attention to period detail is exemplary. The attention to the details of the horse-drawn coaches (such as the London stage on which David is taken to school) is almost festishistic. Bentley presents a full change of horses and the unloading and loading of the mail during the coaching inn scene: having gone to the trouble of acquiring a 'coach and four', he was clearly determined to show off his research. He may have acquired the coach and drivers from his Dickensian contacts: competition coach races (based on The Pickwick Papers) were popular in the 1910s and 20s.

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
1. Peggoty's quaint hut (2:57)
2. Salem House School (7:23)
3. Betsy Trotswood (3:34)
4. Uriah Heep and Mr Micawber (0:49)
5. The wreck at Yarmouth (3:11)
Complete film (1:03:49)
Old Curiosity Shop, The (1934)
David Copperfield (1966)
Dickens on Film