I’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.
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.
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.