Rather Dickensian even for Dickens, the grim novel Nicholas Nickleby gets the movie treatment in this two-reel Thanhouser adaptation.
I will also be covering the 2002 adaptation of the novel. Click here to skip to the talkie.
Brimstone and Treacle
To understand the popularity of Charles Dickens, it is also important to understand how his novels were distributed. Rather than purchasing the novel in one go, Dickens sold packets of serialized chapters over the course of months or years, always leaving the reader in some kind of suspense and champing at the bit to see what would happen next. This, of course, required bold plotting and some rather mad plot twists but, really, isn’t that rather like serialized prestige television today?
Nicholas Nickleby is not one of Dickens’ most famous novels coming as it did on the heels of Oliver Twist but it does contain his signature ingredients: colorful characters, melodramatic situations and a passion for social justice. In this case, Dickens was eager to expose Yorkshire boarding schools.
In the years leading up to the railroad and the penny stamp, Yorkshire was a reasonably remote corner of the country ideal for dumping inconvenient children. The boarding schools were rife with abuse and students died from both malice and neglect. In preparation for the sequence in his novel, Dickens studied legal reports on the schools and even visited one of the most notorious examples. He also set Nicholas Nickleby in the 1820s, around the time that eight pupils under the case of one William Shaw went blind due to neglect. (And the London’s financial crisis of 1825-26. Stock speculation plays a significant role in the story as well.)
The Dickens effect was swift and the Yorkshire boarding schools closed their doors, including the establishment still owned by William Shaw. This, of course, is also a rather tidy response to the clueless cries that entertainment in the “good old days” was only meant to amuse and never touched on politics or social issues. In the words of Dickens himself, “Bah! Humbug!”
Fast forward about seven decades and we find the American film industry starting to head toward more complicated plots and even a few feature films. In 1911, the Thanhouser film company adapted David Copperfield, which was met with acclaim. As a result, they followed up with Nicholas Nickleby, a 952 page novel squished down to two reels.
To give you the very basic rundown (spoilers for a 170 year old book ahoy), Nicholas and Kate Nickleby are forced by the death of their father to ask for help from their uncle, Ralph Nickleby. Ralph sends Nicholas to be a teacher at the Yorkshire school owned by Wackford Squeers and keeps Kate with him to act as hostess at his business shindigs. Nicholas finds Squeers to be abusive and loses his temper when Squeers starts to beat Smike, an abandoned child used to do all the hard labor at the school. Nicholas and Smike escape together. Meanwhile, Kate is being harassed by Lord Frederick Verisopht and Sir Mulberry Hawk with her uncle’s approval.
There’s an interlude on the stage (Dickens loved his interludes based on his real experiences, see also the American sequence in Martin Chuzzlewit) and then Nicholas finds work with the kind Cheerybles, Kate is courted by their equally sweet nephew and we meet Madeleine Bray. Nicholas loves Madeleine, Ralph tries and fails to interfere by maneuvering Madeleine into marrying a miser named Gride and meanwhile, Hawk kills Verisopht. Squeers is arrested and is about to squeal on Ralph and the pupils left at his school riot and escape. Smike dies and then it is revealed that he is really Ralph’s son. His business ruined and his child dead, Ralph kills himself.
Phew! That’s the short version, anyway. Now get all that into two reels.
What’s surprising is just how much the Thanhouser crew did manage to fit into those two reels and kudos are due to the studio’s main scenario writer, Lloyd Lonergan. Further, the smoothness of the adaptation is notable. During this period, it was still not unusual to see adaptations of books and plays that would be kind of a “greatest hits” collection rather than a coherent story in their own right. Basically, the filmmakers would assume audience familiarity with the story and just show the good parts, which might have worked in the short term but really makes the films difficult for modern viewers less familiar with the original material. The 1912 Nicholas Nickleby never loses sight of the fact that it is its own thing and even viewers who have never cracked open Dickens should be able to follow the story with ease.
I must also praise the fact that the version of the film I viewed does not go overboard with the title cards, including just enough to keep the story moving along but not so many as to weigh down the film. This delicate balance was by no means easy to achieve and it helps out the production enormously.
The film does do away with the most famous plot twist in the novel—Smike is Ralph’s son and the first cousin of Nicholas and Kate—but this seems to have been in order to appeal to the sensibilities of a 1912 American audience. Moving Picture World noted that “The ghastly features, such as the end of Gryde (sic) and Ralph Nickleby, have been omitted entirely – with great wisdom.”
The film was universally praised as another feather in the Thanhouser cap and a worthy follow-up to David Copperfield. I must agree that the adaptation is unusually clever and deft and while I would have preferred to see a more satisfactory conclusion to the Ralph Nickleby/Smike plot thread, the film does not feel incomplete.
Now, let’s guess where the film was shot. Come on, based on the screen caps, where do you think it was shot? Do I hear Jacksonville, Florida? You’re right! Thanhouser had ventured south from its New Rochelle digs to take advantage of the sunny climate and Nicholas Nickleby was one of its first Florida productions to be released with the winter scenes likely shot back up north. (Around the same time, Kalem was sending teams to Florida, Ireland, Egypt and Palestine while Universal sent a team to England for Ivanhoe.)
Dickens and silent films go together like waffles and strawberries. The silent era was filled with talented character actors and Dickens was filled with colorful characters just waiting to be brought to life. The more dramatic acting style of the period worked well with the melodramatic incidents and comedy relief found in Dickens novels. A perfect match.
The cast of Nicholas Nickleby is generally very good. Justus D. Barnes plays the villainous Ralph, though you probably know him better in another role:
David Thompson brings appropriate nastiness to the role of Wackford Squeers, as does Isabel O’Madigan as his horrible wife. Their son is played by Marie Eline and I am not sure that having her puff out her cheeks to portray chubbiness works quite as well as intended. Etienne Girardot is on hand as the grotesque Gride and does a good job of it, though I think Oren Hooper plays a bit to the cheap seats as Newman Noggs.
Frances Gibson, who boldly rescued Romaine Fielding in Across the Mexican Line the year before, does good work and brings a bit of fire to Kate. Mignon Anderson, who I had read about but never seen in action, does what she can with the passive and dull Madeleine Bray. Verdict: I like her. On the other hand, Harry Benham was one of those well-nourished types that pre-WWI audiences just loved but his acting is on the stiff side. At the shady side of his twenties, he also looks far too old to be playing a teenage protagonist.
Director George Nichols, whom you probably know better for playing Mabel Normand’s father in Mickey and The Extra Girl, shows himself to be a clever director with a reasonably nimble camera for the period. All of this is the icing on an already sweet cake.
Nicholas Nickleby is an example of a deft American literary adaptation and it holds up extremely well. A treat for anyone interested in the classier entertainments of the nickelodeon era.
Where can I see it?
Nicholas Nickleby has been released on DVD as part of the BFI’s Dickens Before Sound two-disc set with a score by Neil Brand. The set comes highly recommended as it also includes a quality version of the 1922 Oliver Twist with Lon Chaney and Jackie Coogan in addition to other rarities. The set is listed as region 2 but I had no trouble playing it. (I’m located in California.)
The film is also available for streaming courtesy of the Thanhouser project. That version has an organ score by Raymond A. Brubacher. I should note that the BFI DVD release runs 20 minutes while the Thanhouser release runs at 30 minutes. This is due entirely to the frames-per-second selected by the producers as the Thanhouser release is taken from the print held by the BFI. For what it’s worth, I believe the slower runtime works better.
When Nicholas Nickleby was released in 2002, I was first and foremost illogically irritated by the awkwardly-posed poster but also I was baffled as to the object. You see, I am a devotee of old school British literary miniseries and rather enjoyed the most excellent and well-acted 2001 ITV adaptation. Why the heck would I need another Nicholas Nickleby in my life and so soon? It seems that much of the moviegoing public felt the same way because the 2002 film failed to earn back even its modest budget at the box office.
I could have reviewed the ITV series but I figured it wouldn’t be fair to pit a 3 hour+ series against a little two reeler and preferred a more apples to apples comparison of a major theatrical release. However, I shall put in my plug and say that the acting in the miniseries is absolutely perfect and James D’Arcy and Sophia Myles manage the nearly impossible task of making the bland Nicholas and Kate interesting, imbuing them both with an appealing inner fire. And if anyone was ever born to play a Dickens villain, it would be Charles Dance.
So, as you can see, the 2002 film has quite a hill to climb in order to impress me. Let’s see if it makes it. (Spoiler: It doesn’t.)
First, the good stuff. British actors seem to live for the opportunity to play one of Dickens’ grotesques and quite right too, the characters look like an absolute blast. Jim Broadbent and Juliet Stevenson leave no corner of scenery unchewed as Wackford and Mrs. Squeers, Kevin McKidd has fun as John Browdie, David Bradley is suitably nasty as Madeleine’s father.
Christopher Plummer plays Ralph Nickleby and goes for an unexpectedly subtle take on the character. While the performance is excellent, it does rather clash with the wild antics of the supporting cast as subtlety in Dickens is a rather all or nothing proposition. Either everyone else should have toned down or Plummer should have bumped up; all the performances are good, just in totally different styles and the glue does not hold.
And now for the Achilles’ heel of the film: the leads. Let’s face it, playing a Dickens hero or heroine is not for the faint of heart. Sure, there are some great characters like Bella Wilfer in the mix but many of the straight up romantic leads are… nice. That’s it. Nice. Lovely in the real world, a disaster for an actor. There is nothing more tedious and dull to play, I should imagine. I mean, there’s a reason why actors clamor to play Ebenezer Scrooge and not Nicholas Nickleby. Nicholas can have a violent temper, to be sure, but it is in reaction to things like child abuse and the sexual harassment of his sister. Hardly outside the bounds of normal human behavior.
And so Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas is… nice. And Romola Garai as Kate is… nice. And Anne Hathaway as Madeleine is… nice. I would love to have them as neighbors but I’ll be darned if I want to follow their lives onscreen and so it’s up to the more colorful characters to carry the day.
Director Douglas McGrath also adapted Jane Austen’s Emma in 1996 but the light touch he brought to that film isn’t much help here, especially since the screenplay (which he wrote) eliminates some of the drollest scenes in the novel and tries to force strong reactions from events that were given far longer to simmer in both the novel and the miniseries. The story generally holds together well enough, we know what is happening but something is… off.
As is often the case when Victorian literature is adapted with a non-British audience in mind (and by an American), the filmmakers fail to take into account the culture of the period. There’s the obvious stuff like the slurpy snogging in public near the end (um, no) but there is also the matter of Fanny Squeers, the daughter of the Squeers house who pursues Nicholas.
In the film, Nicholas meets her once and she is awkward and annoying but has not abused any kids or done anything else particularly vile. However, when she pretends to faint in hopes of getting his attention, he loudly declares “Ew, gross, nasty, not if she were the last woman on earth, AS IF!!!” (I paraphrase) which is just… no. It seems needlessly cruel toward someone who, up to this point, has merely been awkward in her pursuit and who could possibly blame her for wanting to get away from her family? (In the book, Fanny’s strange and incessant pursuit of Nicholas is rather uproarious comedy relief, especially when played alongside the snotty antics of her frenemy, Matilda Price. Nicholas’s eventual rejection is an understandable result of her bizarre behavior and the mischievous egging-on of same by Miss Price.)
Yes, Fanny proves to be a stinker later in the picture but Nicholas did not know that when he unleashed his interminable speech about how he hated the very sight of her. That’s not how a gentleman would behave in the 1800s. Heck, that’s not how a gentleman should behave now. A simple “You are very much mistaken, I have no ambitions in that regard” would have sufficed.
Further, Kate’s embarrassment at the vulgar jesting of Mulberry Hawk seems out of place because up until that point, we have seen the PDAs of the Squeers and Nicholas prancing around sans shirt. A Hollywood-friendly atmosphere of mild sleaze and beefcake, in other words. The problem is that the film then switches gears and goes full Victorian when we simply have not spent enough time with “normal” characters to establish the social mores. This can be blamed on reducing Kate’s screentime, we see so little of her that there is no chance to establish her respectability in the context of the period.
Finally, the film’s setting is moved from the pre-Victorian 1820s to the 1840s-1850s for reasons of design but the screenplay fails to take technological advances and Railway Mania into account when writing the story. There were numerous times when I wanted to shout, “TAKE THE TRAIN!!!!” at the screen. It would be like a future filmmaker moving a film from the late 1980s to the 2010s but failing to account for the ubiquity of smartphones and the internet.
This film isn’t bad so much as… well… I suppose unnecessary is the word. Everything that is done well was done better in the ITV miniseries and the 2002 film is modernized just enough to be annoying but not enough to be bold. Look, I got sick of the “Let’s set Shakespeare in the earth’s core circa 2457” and “Let’s set Jane Austen in 1920s Germany” thing too but at least there were some attempts to rethink old material. The 2002 Nicholas Nickleby is adequate. It’s not bad, it will do for cramming ahead of an English lit quiz but it never really makes its main character live and breathe and it never looks beyond the page in a meaningful way.
Availability: Released on DVD, Bluray and via streaming.
And the winner is…
The silent Nicholas Nickleby was designed to increase prestige for the burgeoning American film industry and its adapters understood the material they were dealing with. In contrast, the 2002 film just kind of exists. It has no major flaws beyond what I outlined above, it’s just not interesting enough to warrant long discussions.
The silent is an important piece of film history that illustrates the growing sophistication of literary adaptations and showcases some slick film technique. Definitely worth the watch for Dickens fans and movie nerds alike.
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