Many of Charles Dickens’ classic novels have become classic films over the years. To mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dickens himself, Thomas Bentley’s 1934 film The Old Curiosity Shop and Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1947 film adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby have been re-mastered and re-released on DVD.
The Old Curiosity Shop follows the now infamous story of Nell Trent (Elaine Benson) and her unnamed grandfather (Ben Webster), who both reside in The Old Curiosity shop itself, until they are forced to leave by wicked, hunchbacked, money-lender, Daniel Quilp (Hay Petrie). The pair then take to the streets of the British Midlands, trying to find work where they can along the way.
The story was adapted with much attention to detail by director Thomas Bentley – so much, in fact, that one wonders quite how any of the silent film interpretations that preceded it managed anything more than a brief outline of the story. Petrie steals the show as the villainous Quilp, with his attempts at kissing the ‘not quite fourteen’ year-old Nell and terrorising his wife Betsy enough to make even modern audiences wince. While the script’s sentimental side might have aged this production somewhat, it remains a captivating insight into the time in which Dickens lived and wrote.
Nicholas Nickleby, in the form of one adaptation or another, has become something of a Christmas TV staple over recent years – although one which often sits in the shadow of another Dickensian classic: Great Expectations. Nevertheless, Alberto Cavalcanti‘s version holds a certain prestige as an Ealing Studios production, as well as being the title’s first adaptation in sound.
The film follows the journey of Nicholas Nickleby, played by Derek Bond, as he ventures to London with his mother (Mary Merrall) and sister Kate (Sally Ann Howes – who went on to play Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘s Truly Scrumptious, among other roles). The trio hope to gain financial help from their rich but cold-hearted Uncle Ralph, played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Nicholas is given job at a school, but is shocked to find that the children are mistreated, so leaves taking an ailing student named Smike (Aubrey Woods) with him. The pair join a theatre company, but leave when they hear that Kate has been suffering at the hands of the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk (Cecil Ramage). They make it their mission to save her, and go on to meet a number of Dickens’ most memorable characters along their way.
The novel was originally published in monthly instalments and, at times, this film suffers a little in its dedication being thorough. The acting is hugely theatrical throughout, but even so, Cavalcanti’s Nicholas Nickleby is triumphant in capturing the Dickensian sense of social satire, and the Victorian visuals are a treat.
Whether you love Dickens or refuse to even watch A Christmas Carol unless you’ve been heavily plied with mince pies, then re-released versions of both The Old Curiosity Shop and Nicholas Nickleby are still worth a look as revered examples of pioneering cinema and classic storytelling. The DVD versions also come packed with extra features, including interviews with BFI Dickens Season Curators Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton, as well as Dickens’ biographer Michael Slater – take a look at the short clips below!
The Old Curiostity Shop and Nicholas Nickleby are both out on DVD now.