This review contains plot spoilers
Teenaged Nell Trent (Elaine Benson) lives with her grandfather (Ben Webster), who runs the shop of the titled. Indebted to and threatened by the moneylender Daniel Quilp (Hay Petrie), a vicious dwarf, they flee London in an effort to escape him. Also looking for Nell is another man (called “The Single Gentleman” in the credits, played by James Harcourt), who is looking for Nell for another reason: he's her grandfather's long-lost brother.
Born in 1880, director Thomas Bentley was trained as an engineer but became a vaudeville performer specialising in playing Dickens characters. Entering the film industry by working ofr Cecil Hepworth's company, he continued his association with the novelist's work by directing the first feature-length dramatic film made in the UK, a six-reel adaptation of Oliver Twist in 1912. He made several silent versions of Dickens, including a 1915 version of Barnaby Rudge, which included an apparently spectacular riot sequence. Sadly that film is now lost, which is an especial pity as that is one of Dickens's least-adapted novels. (There have been no further cinema versions, and only a 1960 television serial which happily does survive.) Of the eight silent Dickens adaptations Bentley made, only one still exists, plus sections of another. (Extracts from his eight-reel 1913 version of David Copperfield can be found on the BFI release Dickens Before Sound.) In 1913 he made his first version of The Old Curiosity Shop, returning to it in 1922 and again in the sound era with the present version from 1934. He was known for his fidelity to Dickens's work and from the beginning often used the authentic locations where the novels were set in his films.
Dickens's fourth novel, The Old Curiosity Shop was first published as a weekly serial in his shortlived magazine Master Humphrey's Clock, between April 1840 and February 1841. It was something of a period piece when published, as references in the text indicate its setting to be in the mid 1820s. The novel was a huge popular success, with Dickens on his American reading tour being asked about Little Nell's fate. Her outcome is very well known, but just in case you don't wish to know it, please heed the spoiler warning at the head of this review and skip to the next paragraph. In Dickens's readings, Nell's death scene was a frequent, and lachrymose, highlight. However, in a less sentimental age, readers have tended to side with Oscar Wilde, who famously said that you would need a heart of stone to read it without laughing.
Bentley's adaptation departs from the novel by establishing in the opening scene who the unnamed Single Gentleman is, and his reasons for searching for Nell, instead of having this be a revelation at the end. Nell herself is played perfectly adequately by Elaine Benson, though reviews at the time criticised the cutglass diction that heroines of the day had to speak in, unlike the more vulgar speech of comic and/or working class characters like Mrs Jarley (played by Amy Veness). But as so often it's the villain who gets the best line, and as Quilp Scottish actor Hay Petrie walks off with the film. Petrie was not actually a dwarf but was a short man (5'3½”) and Bentley often emphasises his lack of stature by placing the camera above his eyeline. Bentley also seems to realise how much Petrie is dominating the film, so as soon as Quilp is written out Bentley wraps proceedings up as soon as possible – and if anything underplays the histrionics of Nell's final scene, probably mercifully.
As a director, Bentley is certainly efficient but lacks the imaginative touches that lift later adaptations such as the 1947 Nicholas Nickleby (released on DVD by StudioCanal simultaneously with this, and with which Old Curiosity Shop has its editor in common, namely future director Leslie Norman, father of Barry) and David Lean's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. He also doesn't disguise some obviously studio-bound exterior scenes. But it's a capable and still very watchable film, particularly when Hay Petrie is on screen.
The Old Curiosity Shop is released by StudioCanal on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. The print begins not only with its 1934 BBFC U certificate but also before that a Board of Trade registration certificate.
Filmed in black and white and Academy Ratio, The Old Curiosity Shop is transferred to DVD in a ratio of 1.33:1, anamorphically enhanced. Claude Friese-Greene's photography is brighter and less given to chiaroscuro than the later Dickens adaptations. In fact, the transfer may be a little over-bright and is certainly soft. This may of course reflect the state of the original materials, and some minor spots and speckles can be seen.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and entirely adequate to the task, even taking into consideration the limitations of mid-30s film sound recording. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available.
The extras begin with two interviews. The first is with the curators of the BFI Southbank's Dickens season, Adrian Wootton and Michael Eaton (6:30) and the second is with Dickens biographer Michael Slater (9:44). These both follow the format of a text caption followed by video of the interviewees . Wootton and Eaton talk about Thomas Bentley and his place in British cinema history, and the film's performances and visual style. Slater discusses the novel's place in Dickens's career and its format as a weekly serial in Master Humphrey's Clock (the conceit being that the novel instalments, plus short stories and sketches, were found in the clock of the title). Needless to say, writing a novel in weekly parts put Dickens under intense pressure, as opposed to the monthly parts of earlier and most later novels. He also discusses Bentley's career and his Dickens adaptations.
Also on this disc is a short film from 1924, Dickens's London (11:55), directed by Frank Miller, presented with a music score played by Neil Brand. (It is also available on the Dickens Before Sound DVD release.) This is a short piece showing us round various locations that feature in the novelist's works. This film is not without a sense of humour: we see Quilp trying to get away with a child's ticket on a London bus.
The extras are concluded by a stills gallery.