Charles Dickens on silent film at BFI Southbank, January 2012

Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost (1901)
Scrooge; or Marley

2012 marks the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth and a festival of events has been organised to celebrate – including the reopening of the Charles Dickens museum and an exhibition at the Museum of London. The lion’s share of the audiovisual strand of Dickens 2012 begins with a three-month season of screen adaptations at BFI Southbank, which will then tour both nationwide and internationally.

The Dickens on Screen season has been curated by Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton and the first tranche features some heavyweight adaptations such as David Lean’s masterful Great Expectations (1946) and a wealth of 1930s films, including George Cukor’s 1935 David Copperfield, starring WC Fields, Lionel Barrymore and Maureen O’Sullivan and Thomas Bentley’s 1934 The Old Curiosity Shop.

It’s the early films that interest us the most, though, and two programmes with live piano accompaniment offer opportunities to watch Dickens adaptations made between 1901 and 1913, some of which are very rarely seen.

Pre-1914 Short Films commemorates a period of film history in which literary adaptations were rife – even if they were mostly no longer than a couple of reels. It is often claimed that Dickens’s use of parallel action inspired DW Griffith’s experiments with cross-cutting – and there are two Griffith films here, only one of which (The Cricket on the Hearth, 1909) is a straight Dickens adaptation. There are two lively versions of A Christmas Carol, one British (directed by RW Paul, 1901, pictured above) and one American (by Thomas Edison in 1910 and posted below).

The Vitagraph company is well represented, as would be expected, with J Stuart Blackton’s Oliver Twist (1909), starring a teenage Edith Storey as the winsome orphan and William Humphrey as Fagin. Humphrey appears again in Vitagraph’s A Tale of Two Cities (1911), which runs to an epic 30 minutes and makes great use of crowd scenes and bona fide stars such Maurice Costello, Florence Turner and briefly, Norma Talmadge.

There are two Thanhouser films in the programme: The Old Curiosity Shop from 1911 and a 20-minute version of Nicholas Nickleby (1912) with Harry Benham in the lead role, a fragment of which can be seen below. It’s not the only Nickleby on offer, though. You can also see a three-minute film called Dotheboys Hall from 1903, directed by the English comic Alf Collins and featuring some knockabout corporal punishment.

Pre-1914 Short Films screens at BFI Southbank on Tuesday 3 January 2012 at 8.30pm and Saturday 7 January 2012 at 3.50pm. The first screening features an introduction by screenwriter Michael Eaton and both screenings will have live piano accompaniment.

David Copperfield (1913)
David Copperfield (1913)

David Copperfield (1913) is a British adaptation, one of the first feature films made in this country and shot in the actual locations named in the novel. This is one of director Thomas Bentley’s six silent Dickens adaptations, but the only one to survive, and it is noted for both its elegant composition and naturalistic performances. Bentley himself started out at a stage comedian and was celebrated for his impressions of Dickens characters. The film stars Alma Taylor, one of British silent cinema’s most popular actresses thanks, at first, to her “Tilly the Tomboy” films, as Dora. The Eric Desmond credited as the young David is really Reginald Sheffield, father of Johnny Sheffield who played Tarzan’s Boy in the Johnny Weissmuller films.

David Copperfield screens with a three-part adaptation of the same novel, made by the Thanhouser Company in 1911-12. You can watch the films on Sunday 8 January 2012 at 3.30pm and on Tuesday 10 January 2012 at 6pm at BFI Southbank. There will be live piano accompaniment.

That’s not all, dear reader. There will be an introductory talk called Dickens on Screen on Tuesday 3 January 2012, at 6.20pm, given by Michael Eaton and Adrian Wootton, just before the first programme of shorts, and there are also several more silent Dickens adaptations to be seen in the BFI Mediatheque. Plus, we are promised, later in the season, Frank Lloyd’s 1922 Oliver Twist, starring Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney.

Tickets are on sale via the BFI website.

Charles Dickens on silent film: part two!

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