The Only Way (Herbert Wilcox, 1927)

Martin Harvey 1I’ve finally been lucky enough to see The Only Way, the British silent adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, which sadly isn’t on DVD – but is available to see in BFI mediatheques in the UK, and also via the web for universities and colleges and in some libraries. I’ve written to the BFI asking them to release it on DVD and saying that I’m sure a lot of Dickens fans would be interested to see it, but I won’t hold my breath! I wrote a short posting mentioning this film last December during my Dickens season, and posted a great photo of the star, Sir John Martin-Harvey. Some good discussion about the movie followed on, which made me even more determined to see it.

Now I’ve actually bought two photos of him in the role on Ebay and am posting scans of them here – they are both postcards, and I love the fact that, on one of them, someone has written “In sweet remembrance, JOCD.” (Not entirely sure about those initials.) All that is on the other side of the photo is the address, to a Miss D Dennis in London’s Notting Hill. The romantic in me is now wondering if a spurned lover sent this to his beloved, comparing himself to Sydney – or was it one fan sending it to another in “sweet remembrance” of seeing the  play? Or does the ‘CD’ refer to Dickens? Who knows. Anyway, the postcards are clearly from the stage play, which toured Britain for around 30 years, rather than the film, as Martin-Harvey is much younger and not yet knighted.

I saw the film in two parts on successive trips to London, which wasn’t ideal, and I can’t really manage a full review as the first half is already fading in my mind, but I am just so glad to have seen it – and yes, it lived up to my expectations. In particular, the main star, Sir John, gives a powerful performance as Sydney, dominating the screen throughout. He was in his 60s, so really much too old, but he gets away with it in black and white, and is still very handsome but with the feeling that those looks are at the end of their run, giving an added poignancy. He also has a self-mocking quality which reminded me of John Barrymore – there is a slight similarity in the looks, too. Anyway, I found his style of acting, although stagey, noticeably more realistic than that of many of the other actors. 

This version begins with the back story, showing how Dr Manette is imprisoned in the Bastille – I was trying to remember if any other versions have taken this approach, but I did think it works quite well, and this version certainly doesn’t pull any punches in showing the cruelty of the Evremondes.

Martin Harvey 2

It was interesting to see how much the story is changed to turn the whole into a vehicle for Sydney. Many characters disappear to make way for the main story, and, for instance, he steps up in front of the mob to defend Darnay at the French revolutionary court. Darnay, played by Frederick Cooper, gets very little screen time by comparison and doesn’t have a chance to make much impression.  Cooper  was 27 years younger than Martin- Harvey, so it is hardly surprising that there is little if any resemblance, making the first court scene where they are supposed to be doubles less effective than it ought to be. 

Not only Darnay, but also the heroine, Lucie Manette (or “Lucy”, as she is spelt in the intertitles), is somewhat elbowed out of the story. Betty Faire looks lovely but her acting is noticeably more old-fashioned than Martin Harvey’s, and, like Cooper, she doesn’t have a lot to do.

Madge Stuart plays Mimi

Madge Stuart plays Mimi

The real heroine of this version is a character invented for the stage play, French maid Mimi. Saved from the streets by Sydney, she is as tormented by unrequited love for him as he is for Lucie. On stage this part was played by Martin-Harvey’s wife, Miss N de Silva, but, in the film, actress Madge Stuart takes the role and gives a fiery, over-the-top but compelling performance. I really wanted to find a picture of her in this role, as she has a mane of wild dark hair which is her key feature, but I could only find a studio portrait, which does give a sense of her presence all the same. As well as stealing Lucie’s thunder, Mimi also takes over from Miss Pross in the later scenes – Prossy does appear briefly early on, but disappears when the action moves to France.

However, whatever the liberties taken with the story,  the most impressive things about the film are its look and atmosphere. There are some powerful mob scenes, in particular, and often it is strikingly reminiscent of the original illustrations to Dickens’ novels. I know from comments by Martin-Harvey’s descendant Chris Goddard in the previous thread that the original film had colour tints, which have sadly been lost in the digitisation, but, even in plain black and white, it is visually impressive, full of shadows. The film does feel a bit slow, but director Herbert Wilcox keeps up the level of intensity despite this.

Sorry that this is all a bit vague, but I do hope that the film gets a wider release in future and more people get a chance to see it. 

13 thoughts on “The Only Way (Herbert Wilcox, 1927)

  1. Sounds like an interesting picture Judy. I’m always fascinated by interpretations of classic novels. The things they change or focus on says so much about the eras sensibilities. Though I’d be curious to know why they needed to add a character (the maid Mimi) for the play and this film. Aren’t there enough already in the book?


    • Great to hear from you, Jason – thanks for dropping by and commenting! I’m always fascinated by classic adaptations too, and agree with you that each version says a lot about the era it was made in. I believe the character of Mimi was added largely so that Martin-Harvey’s wife, N de Silva, could have a lead role opposite him on stage… and I suppose that the character is also an extension of the poor French girl who travels to the guillotine with Sydney in the book. But you are right that there are plenty of characters in the novel without adding more – and many of them don’t feature in this version at all.


  2. Wow, this is a rarity, especially here in the states. I have not read Dickens since my school days except for A CHRISTMAS CAROL which I like to revisit every couple of years over the holidays. Great photos of Sir John Martin-Harvey.


    • He’s my favourite writer, so I often return to him – glad to hear that you like ‘A Christmas Carol’, anyway, John. I was pleased with how the scans of the photos came out – certainly a very photogenic actor. Thank you!


  3. It’s just fascinating how many times Dickens was adapted to film, probably because he was such a cinematic (ahead-of-the-time) writer. In the photos you provide, Martin-Harvey has such a wild, Byronic appearance — he looks like he could have played the perfect Heathcliff.


    • Yes, he could be Heathcliff in the first photo! Must agree about the cinematic qualities of Dickens – there were loads of earlier silent films and I’m always fascinated to see them when I get the chance. Thank you for your comment.


    • That’s very true, Ruth. I’m not sure if any of his other films survive – he did make a few although he was primarily a stage actor – but I’d love to see them if so.


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  5. Judy, as I stated during your Dickens series months back, this would be a glorious find for both Dickens admirers and fans of the silent cinema. You do such an inspired and passionate job sizing it up, and explaining the missing parts of the equation. That was a great gesture sending in a request for release to the BFI, though like you I am skeptical they will budge on it. We all think of the fine Hollywood release of the 30’s, but a rare find like this would surely have us re-focusing. Great to hear Madge Stewart gives such a compelling performance too. The Hollywood film always has us thinking of Blanche Yurka. Thanks again for such a marvelous review of a film that well deserves a chance.


    • Sam, the BFI has already brought out a Silent Dickens collection, so this would be ideal if they decided on a second helping – but I’m not counting on it, sadly. Your mention of Blanche Yurka reminds me that in this version the actress playing Madame Defarge doesn’t get a chance to make nearly such a strong impression, although the mob scenes are powerful stuff. Thanks very much for the kind comment. I would have liked to write a fuller review, but it was difficult after seeing the film in two parts!


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  7. I haven’t read Dickens since my school days either but even at sixteen I found Sydney Carton irritating. I could never believe in that speech or the sacrifice. I mean, really, I can imagine giving up your life for a child but not so some stranger can enjoy your girl. I’d be most interested in seeing the only way.


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