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.
The first was made in 1911 by Vitagraph, directed by William Humphrey, who also puts in a brief appearance as the dastardly Marquis d’Evremonde. The version I have seen is just 23 minutes long – so it can’t possibly tackle the whole book, and is more a series of tableaux. According to the imdb, the film is said to have been 30 minutes originally, and I see a 30-minute restored print has been shown at some festivals, so I suppose there must be some footage missing from the 23-minute print, but it seems reasonably complete. Gina over at Dickensblog drew my attention to this one, which features a great performance by Maurice Costello as Sydney Carton. Although he doesn’t have much screen time, he does have two great scenes – one drunken scene in an inn where he stares gloomily at himself in a mirror and shakes his fist at himself, and the ending, where he addresses the crowd with his famous last words before going to his doom. There is one clip at Youtube which includes the ending, posted at Gina’s site, and here is another clip, put up by a firm called Harpodeon which specialises in silent films. It is possible to stream the whole film direct from their site, and there is normally a charge, but if you sign up to their site for the first time you can get a free viewing of it. I did find it buffered a bit, but the quality is good for the most part, although there is some damage to the print in the early scenes, and there is a great piano soundtrack.
Celebrated stage actor Costello (who was John Barrymore’s father-in-law and Drew Barrymore’s great-grandfather) is very handsome as Carton, with just the air of self-destructive charm that the character ought to have. Looking up biographies of the actor, I see that he reportedly had a drink problem in real life, and a turbulent love life, so some of this might have fed into his compelling portrayal. Costello does look strikingly similar to the actor playing Darnay (Leo Delaney) but Costello’s features are slightly sharper and more sarcastic, so the court scene with the resemblance between the two works brilliantly in this version. Florence Turner plays Lucie, and there is a glimpse of Norma Talmadge at the end as a woman on the way to the guillotine.
The second version I watched, made in 1917 by Fox, is available on Youtube in nine-minute segments, but unfortunately the picture quality isn’t very good so I found it quite tiring to watch. It was well worth it, though I do prefer the earlier film because of Costello’s performance. Anyway, here is a link to part one of the 1917 version:
This one was directed by melodrama expert Frank Lloyd, who went on to make another silent Dickens film, Oliver Twist, in 1922 before his famous talkies like Cavalcade and Mutiny on the Bounty. You can see how much silent films had advanced in just a few years between 1911 and 1917, because the second film is feature-length (more than 70 minutes) and a far more lavishly produced affair all round, with spectacular mob scenes and a huge cast of extras. The powerful sequence in the book where the starving crowds lap up spilt wine from the street makes a great film scene, moving straight on to the devastating moment where the Marquis mows down a poor child with his carriage.
There are also some clever camera angles from cinematographer William C Foster – when the Bastille is stormed, the drawbridge is seen collapsing from inside, and, when Manette (Josef Swickard) is reunited with Lucie (Jewel Carmen), he is touched by faint shadows of prison bars, suggesting how he will be unable ever to be truly free. However, the most striking thing about this version is the double performance by actor William Farnum, who was a major heart-throb at the time, as both Carton and Darnay – he manages to make the two recognisably different from one another by his facial expressions (helped by different hairstyles), and, as in the earlier film, there is a great mirror scene in the inn. In this one, Carton actually sees Darnay’s face looking back at him from the mirror and mocking him.