“I’d wish you a Merry Christmas,” snaps Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) as she walks past a drunken Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), staggering through the falling snow. “But it’s plain to see you’ve had it already.” However, Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) has compassion, and drags him into a Christmas night church service - where she whispers that she is lighting a candle for him. Earlier, Carton envied Darnay Lucie’s prayers and pity; now he has them too. It’s plain to see that she isn’t giving up on the wasted life of the lawyer just yet.
None of this is in Dickens’ novel, which indeed has no mention of Christmas at all. Yet it all adds up to one of the many memorable scenes in the 1935 take on his tale of the French revolution – and helps to build up a touching portrait of the relationship that might have been between Lucie and Carton, the central doomed romance of both novel and film.
As with MGM’s previous smash hit, David Copperfield, also produced by David O Selznick and featuring some of the same actors, the studio’s version of A Tale of Two Cities was released for the Christmas market. And so the author’s festive reputation was once again woven into the film, with haunting fragments of carol tunes in the score by Herbert Stothard, and even a distinctly 19th-century Christmas tree in one scene. I was slightly surprised by this seasonal flavour when I first saw this adaptation, and wondered if it would make the film too sweet and take away from the story’s darkness and violence. However, it doesn’t do this. If anything, the reminders of Christmas add to the feeling of domestic life being torn apart by turbulent events beyond the control of the people caught up in them.
The film had a different director from David Copperfield, this time Jack Conway rather than George Cukor, and also different screenwriters. All the same, it has a similar flavour in many ways – seeming to find the essence of the novel while inevitably having to cut out a lot. W.P. Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman’s screenplay is very sharp, including many lines of dialogue taken straight from Dickens. But the most striking thing about the film is its visual storytelling – and often it leaves the pictures to do their work without dialogue. There are a number of brief silent sequences linked only by written words flashing across the screen in artistic block capitals.
The sweeping street scenes of enraged mobs are starkly contrasted with the amazingly lavish interiors of the French chateaux, and again with the misery of the Bastille. One particularly outrageous moment sees a pet monkey eating grapes – a stark contrast to the starving peasants who were earlier seen lying in the street to sip from puddles of spilt wine. Cedric Gibbons’ art direction, Oliver T Marsh’s cinematography and Dolly Tree’s costumes all work together to stunning effect.
Ronald Colman had always wanted to play Sydney Carton, but was reportedly reluctant to take on the roles of both Carton and Darnay, as originally suggested. He is said to have disliked dual roles (though he famously went on to play a pair of lookalikes a couple of years later in The Prisoner of Zenda.) Instead, he played just the worn-out Carton, while a much younger, fresh-faced actor, Donald Woods, took on the role of Charles Darnay. The first time I saw the film I was very puzzled at two such different actors taking the roles of characters who should be almost doubles – especially as it makes the famous scene in court where the French spy is confused between the two men lose its force.
However, watching the movie again, I was struck by how cleverly this section of the story has been reworked, so that the resemblance between the two men is no longer a key point here, and the spy instead backs down because Carton has learnt an incriminating secret. All the same, there is a sense of Carton in some way being a wearier and unhappier double of Darnay, emphasised by the fact that Colman does not have his usual moustache in this film, and at times looks as if he could be Woods’ much-older brother. Colman gives a witty and bitter performance as Carton, and makes a much stronger impression than Woods as Darnay – but then this is a story where the outcast hero always overshadows his rival. He also overshadows the heroine here, as to me Elizabeth Allan seems slightly colourless as Lucie.
I do find Edna May Oliver a bit hard to take as an amazingly over-the-top Miss Pross, and feel she isn’t as well cast here as in David Copperfield, where she makes the perfect Aunt Betsy – but, all in all, A Tale of Two Cities has a great cast, with Henry B Walthall touchingly understated as Bastille prisoner Alexandre Manette, and Reginald Owen providing some pompous humour as Stryver.
Two of the most memorable supporting performances are given by Basil Rathbone, as the icily evil Marquis St Evremonde, and Blanche Yurka as the vengeful Madame Defarge, working the names of the aristocrats she wants to destroy into her knitting. Between them, these two epitomise the violence of both the cruel aristocratic regime and the revolution which it breeds. St Evremonde’s callousness is most vividly seen in the scene where his carriage mows down a young child, but he upbraids the grieving parents and even says he doesn’t know what damage has been done to his horses. There’s another startling moment of heartlessness from the other side of the fence late in the film where a woman is knitting next to the guillotine as a head is chopped off – and complains that the jolt has made her drop a stitch. As in Dickens’ novel, this adaptation shows the horror and pity on all sides, and one of the most haunting moments comes with the parting glimpse of the bewildered young seamstress sent to the guillotine, played by Isabel Jewell, before Colman speaks Carton’s famous last words in voiceover.
For me this is one of the greatest Dickens adaptations. Sadly it has never been issued on DVD in the UK, though there is a region 1 DVD available on import, but it is occasionally shown on TV here, and also available on itunes, where I watched it in an excellent print.