A Tale of Two Cities (Jack Conway, 1935)

A Tale of Two Cities 1935 1“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.

Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton
Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton

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.

A Tale of Two Cities 1935 5The 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.

Elizabeth Allan and Ronald Colman
Elizabeth Allan and Ronald Colman

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.

Basil Rathbone as the Marquis St Evremonde
Basil Rathbone as the Marquis St Evremonde

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.

Henry B Walthall and Elizabeth Allan
Henry B Walthall and Elizabeth Allan
Donald Woods as Charles Darnay
Donald Woods as Charles Darnay
Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross
Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross

9 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cities (Jack Conway, 1935)

  1. This is one of my favorite Dickens’ adaptations and one of my favorite Colman performances. He’s able to use just his eyes to wonderful effect, so that you can ‘read’ Carton’s thoughts in their expression. Thanks for a terrific post!

    1. Thanks very much for the comment – I agree this is a great Dickens adaptation and I also definitely agree about Colman and his expressive eyes. There are quite a number of his films that I haven’t seen yet, but will hope to catch up with more of them. He gives another great performance in Wellman’s adaptation of Kipling’s ‘The Light That Failed’, as a character who it now strikes me has some similarities with Carton – sadly that one hasn’t had a DVD release as yet. Thanks again!

  2. Judy, I’m in accord with you on this being one of Ronald Colman’s key performances, also with the fact that he leaves a much stronger impression than Donald Woods. The difference in age and appearance certainly threw me too the first time I saw the film. The Selznick lavishness and attention to period detail really show here and work very much in the film’s favor. For me it’s one of those exemplary adaptations of a famous historical novel that the studios did so well as prestige productions in the 30s. It’s been awhile since I saw it and I’d forgotten the Christmas connection until your wonderful post reminded me.

    1. R.D., I agree that the Selznick love for period detail works very well here – I’ve read that he was very committed to the success of this film and continued to contact MGM constantly with advice about marketing it even after he had left the studio. Interesting to hear that you were also initially thrown by the difference between Colman and Woods as Carton and Darnay in this version, though I think, once you have got used to it, the contrast works well. Thank you very much for your kind and thoughtful comment.

  3. Magnificent review here Judy, of one of Hollywood’s greatest Dickensian adaptations, and for many the best version of this novel period. It is superly mounted, and the ensemble is vivid and accomplished. My own favorite performance is by Blanche Yurka as Madame Dufarge, which is one of the cinema’s most colorful supporting turns. by you are right to issue effusive praise for Basil Rathbone as the Marquis. Ronald Colman of course is unforgettable in one of his most justly celebrated performances, and though the film’s direction is undistinguished there’s an admirable adherence to what counts most in the novel.

    1. Sam, I agree Yurka is superb – she must have been great on stage. Just looked up some information about her and I see she starred as Gertrude opposite John Barrymore in ‘Hamlet’ – wouldn’t you love to go back in time and see that? I haven’t seen many of her film roles but will look out for more. Thanks very much for your comment and for all your support for this series of postings, which is much appreciated.

  4. Pingback: Connecticut Tragedy, The Hobbit, Hyde Park on the Hudson, Dickens December and John Garfield Petition on Monday Morning Diary (December 17) « Wonders in the Dark

  5. ellenandjim

    A very good review, just right amount of detail nicely shaped. The role is quintessentially perfect for Colman. The decors or production design and feel of most of these classic film adaptations of this era feel similar: Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette is another film which is like Leans’s DC and this Tale of Two Cities.

    It’s one of my favorite Dickens adaptations too – and now I know why I have not been able to find it in DVD — though I see there is just one brought out in the US Amazon listing.

    I used to weep copiously at the end. I don’t know if I would now :). At the close of the Third Man Orson Welles does a sardonic mock-retake on Colman which is hard to shake off once you’ve seen it. Ellen

    1. Ellen, I was also reminded of ‘Marie Antoinette’ at times while watching this, and of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ too – I agree that these prestige adaptations do have a similar production design and feel, and they really draw me in. I may well be tempted to buy the US DVD of this as it is a film I enjoy revisiting, and, as you say, the role is perfect for Colman – I hope to watch more of his roles in the coming year. I saw ‘The Third Man’ recently but hadn’t made the connection, so am interested in your comment on that – I’ll have to look at the scene again. Thank you very much.

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