Cast & Crew
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Nineteenth century England. When Nicholas Nickleby's father dies and leaves his family destitute, his uncle, the greedy moneylender, Ralph Nickleby, finds Nicholas a job teaching in a repulsive school in Yorkshire. Nicholas flees the school taking with him one of the persecuted boys, Smike, and they join a troop of actors. Nicholas then has to protect Smike, while trying to stop his Uncle Ralph taking advantage of his sister Kate, and later his sweetheart, Madeline Bray, whose father is in debtors prison.
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Sally Ann Howes
Nicholas Nickleby (1947)
Though the writer died in 1870, the mid 1940s were a particularly fruitful period for Dickens. Director David Lean created what some consider the definitive screen versions of Dickens's work: Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948). Situated between these landmarks is the Ealing Studios' The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), produced by Michael Balcon (The 39 Steps ) and directed by Alberto Cavalcanti.
Derek Bond stars in the title role of an educated young man who is, upon the death of his father, thrust into the world to make a way for himself and see to the well-being of his mother (Mary Merrall) and sister Kate (Sally Ann Howes). Nicholas is spurned by his greedy uncle Ralph (Cedric Hardwicke), who arranges a position for him at a dismal school for boys, presided over by the brutish Wackford Squeers (Alfred Drayton). Unable to tolerate Squeers's cruelty, Nicholas thrashes the headmaster, rescuing a frail youth named Smike (Aubrey Woods), who has been so long at the school that he has become a virtual slave.
A series of professional misadventures follow, including jobs teaching French and performing on stage as Romeo in the Crummles Family theatrical troupe. Uncle Ralph, meanwhile, is trying to use Kate as a matrimonial lure to potential business partners. When he learns of the scheme, Nicholas rushes back to defend Kate's honor, telling Ralph, "I may be young, I may have no money and no experience, but I know the difference between good and evil." Nick moves Kate and their mother to the countryside, where he takes a bookkeeping job for a pair of peculiar twins -- Ned and Charles Cheeryble (James Hayter) -- and seems to have escaped the evil of Uncle Ralph.
Stopped from using Kate as a pawn, Ralph sets his amorous sights on Madeline Bray (Jill Balcon), daughter of one of his debtors and (ah, Dickensian coincidence), the object of Nicholas's growing affection. He also strikes out at Nicholas by orchestrating the kidnapping and abuse of fragile Smike. But fate has a few surprises in store for the dastardly uncle, that will potentially punish the guilty and provide a morally satisfying conclusion to a truly epic story.
Incidentally, Jill Balcon (1925-2009) was the daughter of producer Michael Balcon, and mother of contemporary actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
In adapting Nicholas Nickleby to the screen, writer John Dighton (Kind Hearts and Coronets ) faced a daunting task: distilling a novel that is typically 800+ pages of episodic melodrama to a modest length of 108 minutes. When compared to Lean's adaptations, Nickleby's sprawling plot and hectic pace are generally faulted as the film's primary weaknesses. As The New York Times wrote, "If it were only the first in the series, it might be more rapturously received."
Instead, when it opened at New York's Little Carnegie cinema on Saturday, November 1, 1947, Nickleby received qualified praise. The Times called it, "a generally faithful dramatization of one of Dickens's most heavily-packed books and introduces an entertaining gallery of new Dickens characters to the screen...But comparison to Great Expectations puts it somewhere in the shade, mainly because the former was so much more exciting as to plot and a good bit more satisfying in the nature and performance of its characters. There are just no two ways about it; the story of Nicholas Nickleby -- at least, in screen translation -- is a good whole cut below that of Great Expectations and its tension is nowhere near as well sustained."
Critical opinion in the UK was much the same. The British Film Institute's Monthly Film Bulletin remarked, Nicholas Nickleby "is a difficult novel to adapt, and this has been attempted by concentration on the main plot, with glimpses only of some characters and the omission of others. Since, however, the book's main appeal lies in its queer people, many lovers of Dickens will be angered by the treatment of their favourites."
In his book Forever Ealing: A Celebration of the Great British Film Studio, George Perry wrote that Bond, "who had played an officer in The Captive Heart (1946)...gave a bland but not unlikable performance that at least provided some continuity through what amounted to a succession of cameos."
The "cameo" impression was due not only to tightly-compressed, episodic plot but also the characters' own extremes of appearance and behavior. Of particular note are Ralph Nickleby's manservant Newman Noggs (Bernard Miles), with clownish tufts of hair sprouting from his bald pate, and the pampered Wackford Squeers, Jr. (Roy Hermitage) who is clearly patterned after Lewis Carroll's Tweedledum. Rather than attempt to maintain a single thread of plot, Cavalcanti opted to present the film as a smorgasbord of caricature, not unlike the so-called "modern moral subjects" of William Hogarth, sequential engravings of 18th-century England crawling with grotesque figures, indulging in every variety of vice.
Director Alberto de Almeida-Cavalcanti is a familiar name in British cinema but seldom has anyone ventured an auteurist appreciation of his career. One crucial reason for this is the wide-ranging styles of his films, which make it difficult to define a trademark personality. Born in Rio de Janeiro in 1897, the filmmaker (often credited, simply, as Cavalcanti), was an experimental artist, known for his early "city symphony" film set in Paris: Rien que les heures (Nothing But Time, 1926). He moved to England in the early 1930s and joined John Grierson's GPO Film Unit, directing a series of short films designed to subtly promote the postal system. Most were impressionistic documentaries (Coal Face , Four Barriers ), but at least one took the form of an oddball comedy (Pett and Pott: A Fairy Story of the Suburbs ). Cavalcanti also dabbled in wartime propaganda (Went the Day Well? ), British noir (They Made Me a Fugitive ) and even horror (the ventriloquist sequence of Dead of Night ).
In her Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors, Linda Wood writes, "Cavalcanti's British work, defying hard-and-fast distinctions between art and entertainment, is arguably his best: it is certainly his most consistent. However, [biographer] Ian Aitken contends that he lacked the dedicated careerist's political savvy, and that in Britain he was thrown off creative course by the demands of the documentary form and the commercial film industry. He certainly seems to have felt an outsider at both the GPO and Ealing, and indeed in aesthetic terms his contributions to British cinema does have something of a maverick quality."
Returning to his native Brazil in 1950, Cavalcanti served as head of production at the Companhia Cinematografica Vera Cruz. His career stalled in the era of the blacklist.
Undaunted, Cavalcanti returned to Europe a few years later and worked for two more decades in East Germany, France, and the UK. He even ventured to Israel where he made the film Thus Spake Theodore Herzl (Story of Israel, 1967).
Cavalcanti died on August 23, 1982 in Paris. In 2002, his career was celebrated with a retrospective at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival.
Director: Alberto Cavalcanti
Producer: Michael Balcon
Screenplay: John Dighton Based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Cinematography: Gordon Dines
Production Design: Michael Relph
Music: Lord Berners
Cast: Derek Bond (Nicholas Nickleby), Cedric Hardwicke (Ralph Nickleby), Sally Ann Howes (Kate Nickleby), Mary Merrall (Mrs. Nickleby), Alfred Drayton (Wackford Squeers), Aubrey Woods (Smike), Stanley Holloway (Vincent Crummles), Bernard Miles (Newman Noggs), Jill Balcon (Madeline Bray), James Hayter (Ned and Charles Cheeryble).
BW-108m. Closed Captioning.
by Bret Wood