A Tale of Two Cities (1911 and 1917)

Maurice Costello as Sydney Carton

Maurice Costello as Sydney Carton

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.

A scene from the 1911 film

A scene from the 1911 film

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:

Josef Swickard as Alexandre Manette

Josef Swickard as Alexandre Manette

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.

ATOTC 1917 3

William Farnum as Sydney Carton

10 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities (1911 and 1917)

  1. It’s interesting what Dickens works are frequently adapted and what are not. Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cites, Oliver Twist, and Great Expectations seem obvious candidates, as they have a strongly delineated main plot and several main characters that have become standard literary icons (I wonder if there’s a Twist adaptation that includes all the subplots). But the later, great, and very long novels, such as Little Dorrit and Bleak House, are much less so adapted. Bleak House was adapted for British TV twice, I think, and Little Dorritt was made into a 2-part film starring Derek Jacobi (and quite beautifully done, as I recall), but, in spite of their rich stories and characters, filmmakers seem to stay away from them.


    • G.O.M., thanks very much for this thoughtful comment. I agree it’s interesting to look at what is adapted the most – the four you list there all seem to have been adapted many times, with ‘Carol’ definitely getting the most treatments – but for some reason ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ has fallen out of favour in recent years. I believe ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ has also been adapted quite a few times despite its great length, as I think adapters are attracted by Mr Squeers and Dotheboys Hall. (There has actually just been a modern version on British TV entitled ‘Nick Nickleby’ but I haven’t seen that one as yet.) But yes, some of the the later novels don’t seem to get as many adaptations.

      Gina, thanks for the kind comment and for pointing out that there was a second adaptation of ‘Little Dorrit’ – I think I still prefer the Edzard films, but loved the mini-series too.


  2. Judy, I just watched the excerpt from the silent Lloyd version of A TALE OF TWO CITIES, which I have never seen. No writers in the cinema have been as ceaselessly adapted since the advent of the form than Dickens and the Bard. As ‘Grand Old Movies’ has made claim to above in the excellent first comment, practically all Dickens’s novels have brilliant plots and unforgettable characters. It was nice to see such an early Lloyd film, knowing how this early attempts were refined later on in such polished literary adaptations like MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY. I’d venture to opine that A CHRISTMAS CAROL has been the most oft-adapted, but TALE, OLIVER and GREAT EXPECTATIONS are right there. Great point about Foster’s camerawork, and without seeing the whole film, I’d agree it’s quite a feat from William Farnum to have successfully negotiated the to roles of Carton and Darnay. The Hollywood version of 1935 by Jack Conway and starring Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan and an unforgettable Blanche Yurka as Madame Defarge is the most famous of course, but the 1989 mini series deserves full disclosure at some point. Wonderful series to tackle here Judy for the Christmas season. There is no worthier subject needless to say! Wonderful work!


    • Sam, glad you enjoyed that excerpt from the silent Lloyd version – I must admit it sent my eyes funny watching the whole thing on Youtube, but I would think it would be a great one to see on the big screen if you ever get the opportunity! The 1935 version doesn’t seem to be as well-known in the UK these days as the 1950s version with Dirk Bogarde, but anyway I love both of those, and the 1989 mini-series too. Thanks so much for all the enthusiasm and support!


  3. Just wanted to add that there was a notable 2010 Doctor Who episode based on the story, and the Jim Carey vehicle.

    And perhaps we can agree that maybe ‘Dracula’ rivals ‘A Christmas Carol’ in the quantity of adaptations. Some I’m sure will contend the indestructible Bram Stoker blood sucker is the all-time champ! Ha!


    • Sam, great point on the many adaptations of Dracula. I’ve just remembered that I went to a talk by literary critic John Sutherland where he claimed the Sherlock Holmes stories have been adapted far more than any other 19th-century works – so they must be contenders too, but I suspect no one individual Holmes tale has been adapted more times than the Carol or Dracula!


  4. Pingback: Oliver Twist (Frank Lloyd, 1922) « Movie classics

  5. How delightful and ambitious. Plus you’ve got to practice self-control to keep them shorter and do it every day. What a treat for your readers too. As (I suppose) you know I’m no longer participating in the Inimitable-Boz list. I had gotten together 4 (!) Tale of Two Cities movies (the 1935 in a DVD, the 1958, 1980, 1989). The 1980 is said to be quite good and I’ve not seen it. I had hoped to read the book first and I do have it read aloud on tapes by my favorite David Case but I’m so tired at night. No ambition. Since I know the book a bit (not well) I could watch the 5 anyway — at least the Colman and Dirk Bogarde. I didn’t know about these other films, but I’d be surprised if there’s not an essay somewhere or at least an attempt at a list of all the Tale of Two Cities films ever made. Not so easy as I discovered when I tried to make one for all Trollope films.

    I just watched the Holland Washington Square tonight — very good — and now am without a film. So maybe this’ll spur me on.

    I read the various comments and people do repeatedly say the two books most often assigned in school, the ones known best today are A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities so no surprise they are the frequently made movies. But I was struck by the choice of scene in others that has survived. The death of Joe for example. There’s really a remarkable set of films from the 1980s. The RSC Nicholas Nickelby available on DVD comes to mind.


    • Dear Ellen, thank you so much for the encouragement! ‘Ambitious’ is right – I don’t really have the time to do it, but decided to get on and post every day for this project, even if some of the postings end up being very short. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Dickens adaptations – I believe ‘Hard Times’ is also taught in schools a lot, in the UK anyway, but although there have been a couple of TV versions I am not aware of any cinema adaptations. (I’ll check whether there are any I’ve forgotten about!)

      I’ve seen all the versions of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ you mention except for the 1980 one – I assume you mean the one with Christopher Cazenove in the dual role? Sadly that one never seems to be shown on TV in the UK and I don’t think is on DVD here either. There was another version made in 1980 too, a BBC mini-series, which I have seen but don’t remember too well. I’m not sure why the book was adapted twice in one year; maybe it was in the air at that time for some reason. Anyway, I do hope to write about the 1935 and 1958 versions during this mini-Dickens films marathon, so it would be great to have your take on them. :) And I will have to have a look and see if there is a site with details of all the adaptations of ATOTC – I believe it has often been done on stage as well. I’ll write you an email in the next day or two and catch up, and thanks again.


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