14 December 2014 | lugonian
A Pip of a Story
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (Universal, 1934), directed by Stuart Walker, became the studio's contribution to the current trend of classic literature captured on film. With Louisa May Allcott's LITTLE WOMEN (RKO, 1933) and Charles Dickens' oft-told tale of OLIVER TWIST (Monogram, 1933) having reached the screen, it would be a matter of time before other literary works would be retold in celluloid, particularly those by Dickens. Universal other contribution, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD (1935) would soon join MGM's masterful adaptations with both 1935 releases of David COPPERFIELD and A TALE OF TWO CITIES, each outdoing all previous attempts on Dickens thus far, even to a point of earning Academy Award nominations as Best Picture, while the Universal carnations are literally well made, though not accurately retold from the book, they're close to being virtually forgotten.
As with David COPPERFIELD, GREAT EXPECTATIONS is told in two parts, first with its central character as a boy before moving forward to the same character as a man. Set in England during the 19th Century, the story opens in a gloomy churchyard cemetery where the sad-faced Pip (Georgie Breakston) visits the graves of his dearly departed parents and siblings. He is soon confronted by an escaped convict later revealed as Abel Magwich (Henry Hull) who, after learning his sister's husband, Joe (Alan Hale), is a blacksmith, asks him to meet him the following morning with food, drink and a file to break his chains. At home, Pip is mistreated by his older but stern sister (Rafaela Ottiano), upon being forced to drink the dreaded tar water, but is well liked by his good-matured brother-in-law, Joe. Sneaking out of the house to keep his promise to the convict with his sister's pork-pie, brandy and file, Pip, in turn, no longer fears the convict, but pities him. After his capture and arrest, and before being sent back to prison, Magwich, to assure Pip won't be punished for doing a good deed, tells Joe that it was he who stole his food and file. Pip then cries as he watches Magwich being shipped back to prison. Later on, hoping to acquire extra money, Mrs. Joe and Pip's uncle, Pumblechook (Forrester Harvey), arrange for Pip to become a part-time companion to the ward of the richest woman in the county, Jane Havisham's (Florence Reed). Aside from seeing the neglected mansion full of frightful surroundings, with a reception room and wedding cake covered by cobwebs, Miss Havisham, dressed in wedding gown, introduces the boy to Estella (Anne Howard). Estella, taught to dislike and mistrust all males, verbally abuses Pip to a point of tears, but after winning a fight with the neighboring Herbert (Jackie Searle), Estella, who still finds Pip to be common, allows him to kiss her. Years later, the adult Pip (Phillips Holmes), has grown to love with the sophisticated Estella (Jane Wyatt), regardless of her continued verbal put-downs. Through a lawyer named Jaggers (Francis L. Sullivan), Pip finds that an unknown benefactor has arranged for him to rise from hard-working blacksmith to sophisticated gentleman of great expectations. A series of unforeseen circumstances based on "chance acquaintances" would soon take effect on his life.
Of the numerous screen adaptations of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, none come any better than David Lean's 1946 British-made production starring John Mills. While the 1934 version has never achieved the sort of lasting impression had it been produced by MGM rather than Universal, it's attempt, though well-conceived, has become the most overlooked and ignored of its screen adaptations. Henry Hull, who heads the cast, is generally a supporting role, the one whose character is unseen for a 40 minute stretch before reappearing again. His performance as the convict is excellent throughout. No problem there. Georgie Breakston does splendidly as young Pip, though, for playing a British lad makes no attempt of speaking with British accent. He briefly spoils it when using the American slang term of "ain't." Phillips Holmes role might have been better served had it been played by either a Douglas Fairbanks Jr. or Frank Lawton ("David Cooperfield"). Regardless, the resemblance between Breakston and Holmes are close enough to be physically the same character from boy to man. The same can be said of Anne Howard and Jane Wyatt. While Wyatt is acceptable as Estella, Anne Howard's poor acting and obnoxious overtones weakens the story. Valerie Hobson, credited last in the opening and closing credits as Biddy, is a character talked about but never seen mainly because Biddy was edited from the final print. Hobson not only appeared opposite Henry Hull in the now horror classic, WEREWOLF OF London (1935), but enacted the role of Estella in the 1946 remake. Francis L. Sullivan would also appear in the Lean production, reprising his original role of Jaggers. Other members of the cast include George Barrard (Compeyson); Eily Malyon (Sarah Pocket), and Philip Dakin (Bently Drummle). Try to locate the uncredited Walter Brennan appearing briefly as one of the convicts in the boat.
Seldom revived since the 1980s when presented on public television or on Chicago-based WGN-TV's Sunday afternoon presentation of "Family Classics" (Thanksgiving weekend 1988) hosted by Roy Leonard. Regardless of its 1998 distribution to home video, the 1934 version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS may not be great nor faithful adaptation to the Dickens book, but manages in getting by with whatever expectations it has during its 102 minutes. (***)