If Dickensian fiction story of Nicholas Nickleby were to be filmed today, he’d be a young man incessantly searching Craigslist and wondering what college education is really good for. At least that’s the impression one gets watching Alberto Cavalcanti’s lively adaptation, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947), which perfectly captures the angst of urban youth fitted with stellar education and plenty desire for work, but dire economic prospects—an apt topic both today and at a time when Cavalcanti made his British fiction films, during and immediately after the Second World War.
In his native Brazil, Cavalcanti has been celebrated for his avant-garde modernist films, including his debut, Nothing But Time (1926), and his collaboration with Walter Ruttman on Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), which serves as an important reference in the history of creative or hybrid nonfiction. His work also included theater, as set designer for Luigi Pirandello, Bertolt Brecht and Jean Paul Sartre. In cinema, Cavalcanti made an important passage through John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit. Working in stark observational yet didactic style, approximating it to socialist realism, in England that Cavalcanti made documentaries, such as Coal Face (1935), and worked on the documentary classic, Night Mail (1936), by Harry Watt and Basil Wright, with a screenplay by poet W.H. Auden.
The 1930s were the apogee of British documentary. From it and later from Italian Neo-Realism, Cavalcanti took his naturalist realist form, which in his own fiction films from the 1940s—Went the Day Well? (1942), Champagne Charlie (1944), and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby among them—blended with his penchant for more extravagant touches, for pathos, intrigue, and at times sly humor.
Most realist of the three—if we take for “realist” a generic approximation to documentary form—Went the Day Well? comes closest to the didactic bend of the 1930s. A relatively calm British village receives the news that it’s to bivouac British soldiers. In the midst of war, it sounds like a patriotic effort. An elderly matron expertly draws up a plan for homes to take in the soldiers, and the entire community pitches in, offering lodging, food and cheer. The soldiers, however, aren’t quite what they seem to be: Speaking perfect English yet spelling words wrong, mixing references, and acting odd. The locals soon figure out their wicked plot: These are Germans, secretly scheming to use the village as a strategic front.
Parts of this plot may sound like a situational comedy—and indeed, they are. Since the audience is on the complot from the start, we are left to marvel at the good-natured, upright Brits’ naiveté. But just then the scenario grows dark. Cruelty and violence erupt, as Germans don’t hesitate to lash out when faced with slightest opposition. First deaths come ruthlessly, yet a small boy escapes, and with this there’s still hope that the village might be rescued.
Sustained as a somewhat fable-like tale of everyone pulling in together, Went the Day Well? isn’t necessarily grotesque. Cavalcanti’s neorealist aesthetic always pulls us back, into the realm of genuine terror, of nightmarish destruction and sudden, brutal, even monstrous death that lurks just beyond the village’s cozy confines. There’s a stark scene of a traumatized widow propelled to a grizzly murder, of the wounded, the dead, the infirmed, and the treacherous. An ensemble piece, at its best the film shows how easily hopes can be frustrated, and how quickly acts of courage are extinguished among carnage.
Cavalcanti’s comedic talent is at the forefront in his musical comedy, Champagne Charlie (1944), and in a way presages the 1947 Nickleby adaptation. In Champagne Charlie, by a great strike of luck and sheer gumption, country bumpkin George Laybourne (Tommy Trinder) gets himself into a popular revue, the Elephant, only to be taunted by a singing-sensation nemesis, The Great Vance (Stanley Holloway). The competition drives the two to write ever more creative and popular songs, and eventually results in a duel with pistols.
The rancid, frolicking atmosphere of the music hall must have been a welcome reprieve for the worn-out post-war audience. In a way, it already signals a change of attitude. The stories of heroism give way to the hall’s chief protagonist, the loud, abrasive, down-to-earth Bessie Bellwood (Betty Warren), a voluptuous hostess and a shrewd, hard-as-nails businesswoman. Bessie is a fresh counterpart to everything conservative and snobbish. Not that she isn’t a social climber. When her daughter, Dolly (Jean Kent) falls for a young aristocrat, Bessie intercedes with the man’s stern father, reminding him that she and he were also once passionately in love. Thus convention and class mustn’t thwart happiness, jolliness must prevail.
One can see how Cavalcanti’s most sophisticated film of that period, and the last he was to make for Ealing Studios, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, successfully weds all of his stylistic inclinations. The Dickensian world is brutish, viciously funny, and absurd. It is populated with hard-on-their-luck strappy characters, and also unspeakably spineless rogues. Beware any innocent soul that makes its way through such a jungle of grotesque types.
Nickleby is no exception: a young sister and brother, Kate and Nicholas (Sally Ann Howes and Derek Bond), with their grieving feeble-minded mother in tow, find themselves at the mercy of their ruthless wealthy uncle, Ralph (Cedric Hardwicke). Cedric has Nicholas loaned out as apprentice to a “school,” a miserable dormitory memorable from so many Dickens’s novels, in which small urchins are taught horrendous spelling and unceremoniously exploited in backbreaking manual labor. As always, Dickensian universe brims with fantastic secondary characters—the unsanitary school owner, Mr. Squeers (the superb Alfred Drayton), his dimwitted son and easily smitten plain daughter, the dignified suffering boy, Smike (Aubrey Woods).
Dickens poked fun at the imbecility of both poor and rich, with perhaps most bile left for the moneyed business elite. And while we may disregard the cookie-cutter nobility of Kate and Nicholas, it is hard not cheer at so much genuine spite and quick turns of wit, at the griminess, only slightly muted by the film being black-and-white and highlighted by the rags, bad teeth, imaginary malodors. A dark comedy of squalor, the film gains new relevance in our own grossly unequal times, when the bluster, lies and vulgar stupidity of those in power offend us as much as they did Dickens in his own time.