“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.
It is amazing to me to realise that this haunting and dazzling silent epic was so nearly lost forever, despite being winner of the first Oscar for best film. It had been thought that no copies of William Wellman’s early masterpiece still existed, until a print was discovered in the Cinémathèque Française archive in Paris and quickly restored. Watching it and seeing how powerful the imagery and acting are, with great performances by Clara Bow, Richard Arlen and Charles “Buddy” Rogers, plus a memorable cameo by Gary Cooper, it makes me wonder how many other great movies have indeed been lost to us.
Although this film does survive against all the odds, and has been shown in a few cinemas with an organ accompaniment, it hasn’t as yet been released on DVD, except as a video transfer on the “grey market” and on a Chinese DVD, which I believe has subtitles that can’t be removed. After watching it twice in a good unofficial copy, I’d love to see it fully restored. According to the article on it at Wikipedia, which includes a good clear plot summary, the original release was colour-tinted and had some scenes in an early widescreen format, as well as some prints having synchronised sound effects. A special edition DVD could try to re-create all this, and have a commentary from a film historian – I’d rush out to buy it! However, even a DVD without all those bells and whistles would be very welcome.
I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.
In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.
However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made. Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.