After watching Frank Lloyd’s early silent feature A Tale of Two Cities (1917), I couldn’t resist taking a look at the second Dickens silent he directed five years later. This one is much better-known, because it has a more famous cast, headed by Jackie Coogan as Oliver and Lon Chaney as Fagin – and it is also available on DVD (it is the centrepiece of the BFI’s region 2 DVD Dickens Before Sound, and I believe there are other releases too) as well as online. Here’s a link to a Youtube version for anyone who would like to watch it online, but, be warned, the musical soundtrack for this version is extremely repetitive! I’m puzzled by the poster shown left which mentions a song, but I suppose there must have been one played at the original showings.
More Dickens in December – and I’m back to silent cinema, though I do promise to include some later films in this series of postings too! Some Dickens works seem to be constantly adapted for the screen, notably Great Expectations, with two new versions in the past year alone – I’m hoping to see the latest Mike Newell film later this week. Others don’t get adapted so often, if at all. These days, A Tale of Two Cities falls into the latter camp, as it hasn’t been adapted for the screen since the 1989 mini-series starring James Wilby. But in the past it was a favourite with adapters, and over the last couple of days I’ve enjoyed watching two early silent American versions.
Since I’ve just been starting to get into silent movies, I was pleased to have the chance to see this little-known silent melodrama at the BFI in London, where it was screened as part of their Josef von Sternberg season. I was especially attracted by this film because it stars Clara Bow and Gary Cooper, who also both feature in Wellman’s Wings, made the same year, about which I’ve been busy obsessing lately.
However, this is a very different type of film, a woman’s emotion picture with a soapy flavour, centred on two friends, played by Bow and Esther Ralston, and their love lives – at times I was reminded of later films like The Old Maid or Old Acquaintance starring Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. The friendship between Kitty and Jean is central throughout and just as important as their relationships with the men in their lives. As the title suggests, the film is full of lurid warnings about the dangers of divorce and the terrible effects on the next generation – though, bizarrely, as the story centres on a desperately unhappy marriage, I’d have thought it actually works as an argument for divorce rather than against it.