The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1947 film)

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby is a 1947 British drama film directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and starring Cedric Hardwicke. The screenplay by John Dighton is based on the Charles Dickens novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1839). This first sound screen adaptation of the book followed silent films released in 1903 and 1912.

The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
Original UK 1947 quad format poster
Directed byCavalcanti
Produced byMichael Balcon
Screenplay byJohn Dighton
Based onThe Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby
by Charles Dickens
StarringCedric Hardwicke, Stanley Holloway, Derek Bond, Sally Ann Howes
Music by14th Baron Berners
CinematographyGordon Dines
Edited byLeslie Norman
Distributed byGeneral Film Distributors
Release date
  • 12 March 1947 (1947-03-12) (UK)
Running time
108 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom


After the patriarch of the family dies and leaves them with no source of income, Nicholas Nickleby, his mother, and his younger sister Kate venture to London to seek help from their wealthy, cold-hearted uncle Ralph, an investor who arranges for Nicholas to be hired as a tutor at Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire and finds Kate work as a seamstress. Nicholas meets Mr. Squeers just as he concludes business with Mr. Snawley, who is "boarding" his two unwanted stepsons.

Nicholas is horrified to discover his employers, the sadistic Mr. and Mrs. Squeers, run their boarding school like a prison and physically, verbally, and emotionally abuse their young charges on a regular basis. He eventually rebels and escapes, taking with him young crippled Smike.

Nicholas and Smike take lodgings with Newman Noggs. Nicholas endeavours to find a position, but rejects a low-paying position as a politician's secretary, and a job as a tutor of the French for the Kenwig daughters comes to comic disaster. He and Smike decide to search for work elsewhere. As they are leaving the city, they make the acquaintance of Madeline Bray, the sole support of her father, who gambled away his fortune and now is indebted to Nicholas's uncle.

In search of food and lodging, they stop at an inn, and the proprietor introduces them to actor-manager Vincent Crummles, who owns and operates a travelling theatrical troupe with his wife. Crummles hires them as actors and casts them in a production of Romeo and Juliet. Despite its success, Nicholas decides to return to London when he receives a letter from his uncle's clerk, Newman Noggs, who urges him to come back as quickly as possible, as his uncle has put his sister in great jeopardy despite a promise by him to make certain they come to no harm.

Kate has been subjected to unwanted attention from Sir Mulberry Hawk and Lord Verisopht, clients of her uncle, and when Nicholas overhears them bawdily discussing her in a tavern he is determined to defend his sister's honour. The cowardly Hawk refuses Nicholas's demand to "step outside" and flees, resulting in a carriage accident in which Hawk is injured. Hawk and Lord Verisopht argue over Hawk's lack of honour, and Hawk kills Lord Verisopht in a duel with pistols. Ralph Nickleby loses 6000 pounds in debt owed him, much to the delight of Noggs, who harbours a hidden desire for revenge against his employer.

Nicholas finds employment as a clerk with the benevolent Cheerybles, portly twin brothers whose nephew Frank begins to court Kate. They provide him a cottage in which Nicholas can place his family and Smike, who has been accepted warmly by all. Meanwhile, Squeers returns to London, planning to capture Smike and bring him back to Dotheboys Hall, and is engaged by Ralph Nickleby to stalk Nicholas and Smike. Squeers and Mr. Snawley make off with Smike "on the wishes of his father". Nicholas, aided by Noggs, intercepts them and foils the plot. Smike, severely beaten by Squeers, is nursed by Kate and falls in love with her.

Nicholas meets Madeline a third time when the Cheerybles assign Nicholas to help her situation in secrecy from her father. His uncle has been trying to coerce her father into giving Ralph her hand in marriage in exchange for settlement of his debt, and Mr. Bray finally accedes. Noggs warns Nicholas, who arrives at the Bray lodgings to find Madeline, unhappily dressed in a wedding gown, awaiting her fate. In a showdown with Ralph, they discover her father dead in his bedroom after Kate reveals to Madeline the true nature of Ralph Nickleby's character. Madeline faints and Nicholas carries her away, warning Ralph to leave her alone as she is now free of all obligations.

Ralph's hatred of Nicholas makes him determined to ruin him, but he is brought up short by Noggs, who has realized from the facts told him by Nicholas that Smike is actually Ralph's son, whom Ralph had Noggs take to Dotheboys. Ralph's hold over Noggs has compelled him to harbour the secret for fifteen years. Smike was sent to the Squeers after his mother's death, using a forged birth certificate, so that Ralph could keep her inheritance rather than let their child have it, as dictated by law. Further, Squeers hired Snawley to act the part of Smike's father to make his kidnapping appear legal. Noggs delights in telling Ralph that Squeers has confessed the conspiracy to the authorities, and Ralph now faces prison and financial ruin.

Smike, fallen into hopelessless because Kate is in love with Frank, succumbs to his various ailments and dies just before Ralph arrives at Smike's deathbed. The police come to Ralph's house to arrest him. Ralph flees to his garret and hangs himself. True love prevails, and Nicholas and Madeline and Kate and Frank are wed.


Critical reception

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times felt "comparison to Great Expectations puts it somewhat 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 . . . No doubt, the compression of details and incidents compelled by John Dighton's script put Director Cavalcanti on a somewhat unenviable spot, which is evidenced by his failure to get real pace or tension in the film's last half. And this overabundance also hampers the rounding of characters . . . Withal, Nicholas Nickleby is amusing as a chromo of Dickensian life. It is only that Great Expectations has led us to expect so much more".[1]

Reviewing a revival, Time Out London observed, "For a director who dabbled in the avant-garde, Cavalcanti makes surprisingly little of the surreal possibilities of this convoluted Dickensian nightmare. As in Champagne Charlie he collaborated with art director Michael Relph to create an impressively atmospheric Victorian London, but stylish visuals hardly compensate for the flat, cursory rendering of some of Dickens' best drawn characters. Only Cedric Hardwicke as wicked Uncle Ralph and Bernard Miles as Noggs are given enough space to establish a proper presence. Meagre and one-dimensional, the film is finally smothered by Ealing's cosy sentimentality".[2]

Box Office

According to trade papers, the film was a "notable box office attraction" at British cinemas in 1947.[3]


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