Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Old Curiosity Shop, The (1934)


Main image of Old Curiosity Shop, The (1934)
35mm, 105 min, black & white
DirectorThomas Bentley
Production CompanyBritish International Pictures
AdaptationMargaret Kennedy
 Ralph Neale
Original NovelCharles Dickens
PhotographyClaude Friese-Greene

Cast: Ben Webster (Grandfather Trent); Elaine Benson (Nell Trent); Hay Petrie (Quilp); Beatrix Thompson (Mrs Quilp); James Harcourt (the Single Gentleman)

Show full cast and credits

Little Nell and her gambling grandfather keep the Old Curiosity Shop. When they are evicted by their usurer landlord they are plunged into poverty.

Show full synopsis

Filming Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop for the third time (after silent versions in 1914 and 1921), director Thomas Bentley added to the reputation for studiously faithful Dickens adaptations that he had earned on numerous silent films, although this would be his only Dickens talkie.

Hay Petrie's malevolent, exuberantly physical performance as Quilp was widely acclaimed by reviewers at the time. Fourteen-year-old Elaine Benson's performance as Nell was less well-received: although some praised her sweet, wistful and natural qualities, they thought her a little too 'educated'. For critic Jenny Dennett, the young actress's experience was characteristic of treatment of women in 1930s British cinema: "deprived of her name [Benson's real surname was Smorthwaite], her sexuality and criticized for her education".

Mostly, the film is extremely faithful to the novel, in its evocation of Dickens' prose and in the way that George Cattermole and Phiz's original illustrations are referenced in Cedric Dawe's art direction and Claude Friese-Greene's photography. But Margaret Kennedy and Ralph Neale's screenplay does make some changes. For instance, the film does not start at the shop but with the Single Gentleman seeking his brother (this scene also shows Bentley's fascination with the details of changing coach horses). The film also resists showing the novel's darker elements - such as Trent's nocturnal theft from Nell or characters' sexualised responses to her - though it does hint at them in its staging of moments such as Trent creeping through waxworks to steal from Mrs Jarley, and men invading Nell's room.

Ironically, the fidelity that earned the praise of the august journal The Dickensian (whose editor, Walter Dexter, was the film's consultant) also drew fierce criticism, at a time when Dickens was less widely celebrated than he is today. The Observer's critic felt that the way the film "sticks grimly" to the novel produced a "reputable, and entirely loyal translation" that was also "one of the dullest films it has ever been my lot to see". The film is much more enjoyable than that harsh judgement suggests, although its pacing and use of gestures more evocative of silent melodrama than 1930s cinema add weight to critic Brian McFarlane's later contention that Bentley's films were old-fashioned even by the 1920s.

David Rolinson

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Family (3:21)
2. Nightmares (3:03)
3. The end of Quilp (3:32)
David Copperfield (1913)
Friese-Greene, Claude (1898-1943)
Dickens on Film