Two Dickens’ Classics – Nicholas Nickleby and Curiosity Shop DVD Review

With Charles Dickens making yet another pit stop at the cinema next year, as Ralph Fiennes renders the private life of the literary legend in the Invisible Women, the time seems ripe to issue a short but focused injection into the DVD market. In celebrating the bicentenary of the writer himself, Studio Canal are set to release two of Dickens’ classics, albeit not the most renowned, but classics nonetheless. The duo is made up of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947) and the earlier The Old Curiosity Shop (1934). 

Most of us are familiar with Dickens’ stories via the cinema and the television but seldom with his actual novels. This is partly due to the cinematic adaptability of his many tales, as they sit as comfortably in the cinema as they do bound in a book. His catalogue of characters share memorable qualities whether likable or otherwise, and just like the titles for which they serve, they become legends before they become history.

Little Nell and her Grandfather Trent

The Old Curiosity Shop (1934)

Ealing Studios presents us firstly with The Old Curiosity Shop. The story begins by remarking the age-old tale of two brothers who suffer a feud over a woman for whom they both loved. Thus, the pivotal question is set up as to whether they will ever reunite. Little Nell (Elaine Benson) and her frail grandfather Trent, (the less-fortunate of the brothers) elegantly performed by Ben Webster are to be prosecuted by a wealthy and spiteful bantam man, Mr. Quilp (Hay Petrie).

When Quilp takes over their curiosity shop, the adorable Nell and her equally adorable grandfather decide to escape from London in search of familiarity elsewhere. They are soon followed by Mr. Quilp, but also by Trent’s now-wealthy long-lost brother, who wants to find the couple before they join a wax works exhibition. After a turn for the worse, Mr. Quilp finds himself in a sticky situation with the law, which initiates his inevitable downfall.

It is easy to lose ones self within the plot as it often rambles and some of the material begins to feel superfluous. The narrative is often disrupted by a lack of a coherent causal chain of events. This is perhaps owing to the fact that the film emerged from a rather large novel, thus it was a challenge to judge what was important to maintain and vice versa.

Other than its Dickens title, regrettably there is very little going for this film in way of a unique selling point. The film plods along and often spirals into wastefulness until the next overused transitional wipe comes, which sparks a short-lived possibility of something ‘real’ happening. The quality of the print itself is watchable but is unfortunately marred by a rough and grainy aesthetic. The set is clearly artificial and staged, and to an extent, this is only expected, but in later adaptations such as Nickleby, the falsities are more or less disguised into a coherent and self-contained world. Thomas Bentley’s The Old Curiosity Shop hasn’t advanced much past the vaudeville period and promotes the same cheesy aesthetical effects as Edwin Porter’s Great Train Robbery (1903). 

Hay Petrie as the famous Mr. Quilp (Left)

Our central antagonist is a demonic landlord, evil to men, women and children alike. He storms the frame and possesses the same energy as Tucci’s Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Hoffman, 99), and in fact allusions to Shakespeare are unavoidably evident within both films; it rapidly becomes clear how influential the Bard was to Dickens. Dwarf-man Quilp is worryingly indulgent in his own villainy. The little energy that the film does have is a result of the brilliance Petrie brings to the character. Thus, his performance is the one singular thing, which in my opinion warrants the price tag.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947)

Ealing produce a more worthy Dickens adaptation with The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby thirteen years later, directed by the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti. When Nicholas’ father dies, the immediate family turns to the wealthy but relentless uncle, Ralph Nickleby (Cecil Hardwicke).

The age of the workhouse, inherent to the bulk of Dickens’ work, is our ambience once again in this very British adaptation. Although Nickleby is far from promoting the same vivaciousness as the likes of Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol, what it does promote is an old-country charm, responsible for sparking nostalgia for Dickens and for Ealing productions.

Mr. Squeers Introducing Nicholas to Dotheboys Hall

It is the early nineteenth century. The noble and upstanding Nicholas (Derek Bond) is sent away to work at the hell-on-earth orphanage, Dotheboys Hall – and it is exactly what it says on the tin, as the boys are no strangers to the whips and scorns of their abusive, tyrannous and low-life headmaster Mr. Squeers (Alfred Drayton). At the school, happiness is a mystery. The beloved son and brother Nicholas takes it upon himself to withdraw Smike (Aubrey Woods), the most ill treated and most sympathetic of all the boys, and to rehome him. What Nicholas fails to realise is that in this cold, self-indulgent and brutal world, kindness and absolutes have no place.

In being thrown from one job to another, Nicholas finally breaks from the charitable shackles of his rich uncle. When he stumbles across a friendly individual who finds likeliness in Nicholas, the belated fortune that falls in his direction is enough to liberate his mother and sister, and to see that, once his true intentions are discovered, the rotten uncle Nickleby doesn’t escape unscathed.

Many of the performances are commendable, notably that of Hardwicke, who would go on to feature in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), as he renders the uncle with such memorability that it serves even to downplay the likely efforts of our protagonist. Filling the shoes of that one stock Dickens character (as Quilp is to Curiosity), whose eccentricity reasons submission to a mental institute, is Bernard Miles as Newman Noggs. Playing as the repressed servant to the vindictive and demonic Ralph Nickleby, it is no wonder Noggs is driven to such extremities of character.

DVD Extras

Both DVD’s share a similar selection of extra features. What I find most valuable is George Nichols’ 1912 silent adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby. The twenty-minute short serves well in marking the continuous preservation of Dickens’ stories and also identifies certain commonalities amongst filmmakers when dealing with Dickens. Other features, which are consistent across both DVD’s, are interviews with “BFI Dickens season curators”, Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton and Dickens’ biographer, Michel Slater.

For the Nickleby interviews, the discussions revolve around mapping out the novelist’s appeal to cinema even now. It is also brought to our attention the impressive impact that director Cavalcanti had on productions at Ealing Studios, as well as summing up a selection of performances from the film itself. The only real difference in the Curiosity extras is a short film entitled Wonderful London” Dickens’ London (Frank Miller, 1924) which pays homage to the writer and his hometown.

Release Date: May 14th

RRP: £15.99


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