This Christmas day release in 1935 is a literate and compelling version of Dickens' story. It is one Dickens book I had not read, so I was only marginally aware of the story before watching this film. By the end I was hooked and wanting to actually read the book.
Starring Ronald Colman, this version was the last film produced by David Selznick before he left MGM to form Selznick International Pictures. Selznick had already produced a highly successful version of Dickens' "David Copperfield." And, during this first decade of talking pictures, the studios were pulling the classics off the shelf and either filming or remaking them as sound movies. In fact, following "Copperfield, Selznick had produced "Anna Karenina" before tackling "Cities" -- a literary movie hat trick.
Set in London and Paris against the backdrop of the French revolution, "A Tale of Two Cities" centers on Sydney Carton (Colman), a disillusioned lawyer who ends up defending French immigrant Charles Darnay (Donald Woods); becoming enamored of Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan), whom Darnay eventually weds; and then coming to Darnay's rescue once more in France.
That's it in a nutshell, although much more is taking place. The movie deftly presents the story without sagging and easily sustains its two hours-plus running time. Director Jack Conway, a dependable craftsman, helms with confidence. Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, who would later produce/direct such horror classics as "Cat People" at RKO, staged the French revolution scenes.
Some of the scenes are wonderfully created by combining various sources. For example, the guillotine in Paris sequence (above) relies on an actual set, glass painting and matte work to create striking, painting-like images. Other scenes inside a wine shop required intricate lighting sources to capture both the interior and exterior actors all at the same time.
It's also worth noting that the story is brutal, and while the Production Code dictated what could and could not be shown, the story doesn't shy away from gruesome moments, even if they aren't shown on-screen.
A fine cast is headed by Colman (above). Sydney Carton was one of his favorite film roles, and he even shaved off his famous mustache for it. Colman easily made the transition to sound films and was immensely popular throughout the 1930s and into the 1940s. He plays the tortured Carton with poise, registering the right amount of self-loathing and determination to do good. Colman quietly and confidently carries this film.
Allan brings a nobility to her role, while the supporting cast brings together many notable players from MGM's stable, such as the always-delightful Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross, Basil Rathbone clearly relishing his role as the despicable Marquis St. Evremonde, and the excellent Henry Walthall as Dr. Monette. Stage star Blanche Yurka makes a memorable splash in her sound movie debut as the formidable Madame DeFarge.
"A Tale of Two Cities" is the type of film that wouldn't be made today unless undertaken by an independent company or changed/modernized/glamorized/actionized in some way to be more "relevant" to current moviegoers. Most likely it will receive lavish made-for-TV treatment as a movie or miniseries.
But this version is a reminder that a big-screen film can be both literate and entertaining, made by studios and producers who knew how to combine these to create a quality product. We all know that Selznick knew how to turn a book into a film, and "A Tale of Two Cites," which earned Oscar nominations for best picture and best film editing, can proudly stand as a classic of 1930s moviemaking.