Dickens' novel gets an excellent cast as a young boy survives a difficult childhood to become a writer and marry.
Aunt Betsey (Edna May Oliver) expects the young widow, Mrs. Copperfield (Elizabeth Allan), to have a girl, but he's a boy. She likes Edward Murdstone (Basil Rathbone), and so David Copperfield (Freddie Bartholomew) leaves with nurse Peggoty (Jessie Ralph) to live at Yarmouth beach with Dan Peggoty (Lionel Barrymore) and Mrs. Gummidge (Una O'Connor). David tells nurse Peggoty that Barkis is willing. She takes David to his mother and new pa Murdstone, who has brought his mean sister Jane Murdstone (Violet Kemble Cooper) into the house. David is intimidated by the stern Murdstones and is spanked. Nurse Peggoty tells David that his mother died in childbirth. Peggoty leaves with Barkis. Mr. Murdstone sends David to London to work. He lodges with Micawber (W. C. Fields) and his wife. Micawber is arrested for debt and later leaves, advising David to spend less than his income.
David's box and money are stolen, and he has to walk 72 miles to Aunt Betsey's house at Dover. He gets a bath and in bed prays for a home. The Murdstones arrive; but David asks to stay with Aunt Betsey, who criticizes the tyranny of Murdstone and keeps David. He is sent to school in Canterbury and lives with Mr. Wickfield (Lewis Stone). David meets the employee Uriah Heap (Roland Young).
The adult David Copperfield (Frank Lawton) says good-bye to Agnes Wickstone (Madge Evans). Micawber calls on Copperfield, who gives him money. Copperfield goes to London to write, and at the ballet with Steerforth (Hugh Williams) he meets Dora (Maureen O'Sullivan). Copperfield takes Steerforth to meet Dan Peggoty's family. Ham (John Buckler) is going to marry Emily (Florine McKinney). Steerforth sings. Copperfield writes to Dora. Ham tells Copperfield that Emily has run away with Steerforth. Mrs. Gummidge keeps Dan Peggoty from going after them. Copperfield sends his first book to Aunt Betsey, who assumes it is dedicated to Agnes; but he tells them he is in love with Dora. Micawber tells Copperfield that Heap has become Wickfield's partner. Micawber owes Heap money. Heap gives Wickfield drink and wants to marry Agnes, which angers Wickfield. Copperfield tells Heap that Agnes is above him.
Copperfield weds Dora and gives her a cookery book; but the dinner for Betsey and Mr. Dick (Lennox Pawle) is a disaster, and the house and its accounts are a mess. Copperfield sends for nurse Peggoty to take care of them, and Dora collapses. Dan Peggoty tells how Emily tried to escape and was found on the beach, asking Copperfield to go and help the suicidal Ham. A ship is tossed by a storm. Ham swims to the rescue and finds Steerforth on board; they both drown. The doctor tells Copperfield there is no hope for Dora; she says he would have tired of a child wife and dies. Heap is managing Wickfield's business. Micawber calls Heap a scoundrel, forger, and cheat. Copperfield makes Heap give the bonds and papers back. In the final scene Copperfield and Agnes get together and kiss.
This film is enriched by the diverse Dickens characters and the detailed portrayal of 19th-century England. In David's childhood kind and cruel treatment are contrasted. A crooked clerk is put back in his place, and the charming Copperfield overcomes much ill fortune to find a suitable mate.