Some Thoughts on the BBC, British Silent Films, Dombey and Son, Rich Man’s Folly & The Changing World of Charles Dickens

by Fred Guida on January 10, 2012

Following up on last week’s comments about BBC television’s shockingly unoriginal and downright boring approach to Dickens, I thought this 2009 story from The Telegraph might be of interest.   In it the distinguished screenwriter Andrew Davies offers his reaction to the BBC pulling the plug on a planned production of Dombey and Son.Charles Dickens Dombey and Son

Read it and weep.   And the bottom line, of course, is that a Dickens novel that is comparatively unknown to the general public, and that has inspired just a small handful of adaptations over the years, is left to gather dust while the BBC continues to proudly grind out more of the same old same old.  As I mentioned in the November 6th posting that launched this little tirade, I just don’t get it.

And finally, I would be delighted to hear from anyone in the UK who has any additional and/or more recent information on this aborted adaptation of Dombey and Son.

And speaking of Dombey and Son

As mentioned above, in terms of film and television, very little has been done with Dombey and Son.  However, there was a very interesting 1917 British feature, directed by the prolific Maurice Elvey, that I hope to discuss at length in a future posting.

William K. Everson American Silent FilmI was privileged to be a student of the great film historian William K. Everson whose American Silent Film is the definitive single-volume history of this subject.  (Basically anything he said about film was definitive!)  Anyway, he summed up the film nicely within the context of a discussion of the financial and logistical constraints faced by European film makers during World War One:

“A British version of Dickens’s Dombey and Son, made in 1917, was economically canny enough to eschew costumes and period setting and was given a contemporary framework, although it has since taken on an appropriate sense of period, being closer in time to Dickens’s period than it now is to our own.”  (Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 100.  This great book is currently available in a paperback reprint from Da Papo Press.)

Not surprisingly, in its review of July 11, 1919, Variety positively hated the film when it was released in this country two years later:

“All too evident is the fact that this is an importation, and, worst of all, an English importation.   They haven’t the sunlight or the mastery of lighting in the island kingdom that is necessary to excellent photography.   What is more, the English haven’t motion picture skill.”

I said “not surprisingly” because Great Britain is unquestionably the most underrated, and unfairly maligned, of all the countries that made films in the silent era.   Sadly, this Variety review is representative of the outrageous disrespect that has traditionally been heaped upon British silent films both at home and abroad.

Maurice Elvey

Maurice Elvey

Fortunately this situation is changing and British silents are finally starting to get the recognition and respect that they deserve.   And thankfully a few of them are now available on top quality DVD releases.   Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, for example, is finally (!) out on a high quality DVD as is Maurice Elvey’s 1927 version of Hindle Wakes and Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor.   And I have heard that the British Film Institute’s recent restoration of Asquith’s excellent Underground may be out on home video soon.   Let us hope so!

I will have more to say about this in future postings.   And for whatever my two cents are worth, I am actually very proud of the fact that I went on record twenty years ago in defense of British silents.   Please see my article entitled British Silent Films [An American Perspective] that appeared in the June 1992 issue of the great Films in Review, probably the only film magazine or journal in the world that would have published this article.

Returning to Dombey and Son, there is only one film to report on in the sound era and, chronologically speaking, it launched a famous and important Dickensian outburst in Hollywood in the thirties.  I refer to the 1931 Paramount production of Rich Man’s Folly starring George Bancroft.Dickens Rich Man's Folly

I will hopefully have more to say about this film down the road.   For the moment, suffice to say that since it is not a period drama but a heavily truncated transposition of the story to twentieth century America, the opening credit’s mention that it is “suggested by” Dickens’s novel is right on target.   From a Dickensian point of view, it is an interesting curio.   Taking a broader view, it is the type of obscure early talkie that crazy film buff types (like me…) can’t get enough of.

An important final note on this film:  Rich Man’s Folly is the kind of unusual item that one would dearly love to see revived and find a new and wider audience in this year of the Dickens bicentenary.   However, if your school, university, library or organization is planning a Dickens film series, be advised that, contrary to popular perception, this film is not in the public domain.   It is owned by NBC – yes, that NBC – who is currently working on a restoration.

To the best of my knowledge, it has never had an official release on any home video format.   Nevertheless, copies have been floating around for as long as I can remember.   I first saw it, in 16mm, about thirty years ago.   Hopefully a top quality DVD release is on the horizon!

Moving on…

Phoenix Learning Group Changing World of Charles DickensIn the present context, 1969 was an interesting year.   Learning Corporation of America produced an excellent twenty-six minute documentary, which was filmed in England, entitled The Changing World of Charles Dickens.   It contains dramatic enactments of key passages from several of Dickens’s novels including Dombey and Son.   In this case, the extract chosen is the famous conversation — at once both poignant and chilling — between young Paul Dombey and his father on the subject of what money can and cannot do.

I’ll have more on this award-winning subject, which is available on VHS and DVD exclusively from Phoenix Learning Group, in a future posting.   However, I am delighted to announce that in honor of the Dickens bicentenary, Phoenix has just put it on sale for half price!   It’s a title that belongs in every serious Dickensian’s audio-visual library.   And please ask your school or local public library to order a copy in honor of Dickens’s 200th!   Schools and libraries are on tight budgets these days, but this is a great opportunity for them to pick up a title that will be in demand throughout this bicentenary year and beyond!

And finally, to bring this discussion full circle, 1969 also saw Dombey and Son’s first appearance on BBC television.   To the best of my knowledge, this one has yet to see a home video release.   However, I would be delighted to be proven
wrong about this!

Dickens Dombey and Son BBC 1983The second BBC version, which is quite good, was first televised in 1983 and is thankfully available on home video as a stand alone DVD.

It will also be found in the set entitled The Charles Dickens Collection 2.   This set is an incredible bargain these days.   Just be sure to get the 2009 reissue (in the slim cases) which is cheaper than the original 2006 release – and, as an incredibly welcome bonus, includes the 1960 BBC version of Barnaby Rudge.BBC Charles Dickens Collection 2

Barnaby Rudge.   Now there’s a Dickens novel that has suffered from even more neglect than Dombey and Son.   But that’s a sad story for another day…

And finally, to add a closing punctuation mark of sorts to this discussion, and as a welcome reminder that interest in Dickens is by no means limited to the English speaking world, the most recent adaptation of Dombey and Son seems to have been a French television production in 2007.   Let us hope that more — in any language — will follow!









{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dino Everett January 10, 2012 at 7:25 am

I echo your sentiments about British silents. They get a bad rap. often people ..seem to be seduced by anything German or even American in the way of silents, but truth be told all countries’ output is spotty and Britain is no different. There is always plenty of bad mixed in with good, but thankfully filmmakers like Anthony Asquith’s films are beginning to break this myth as more people get exposed. I actually have been championing his first film Shooting Stars here at USC, and it seems to be working…Now I want to find the 1917 Dombey and Son, for which my wife thanks you..


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