I'm still not used to Ronald Colman as a wisecracking drunkard but that's just his exterior as Sydney Carton, hero of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities as filmed by MGM in 1935. Where Colman really excels is in showing us what's inside, seemingly channeling every downtrodden expression available from the old silent film playbook to put across Carton's depression, cynicism, and loneliness. At first Carton is just reckless, he doesn't give a damn, but once he catches a glimpse of Elizabeth Allan's Lucie Manette he fills with hope, so uplifted that he even puts drink aside for a time and enters what we the viewer know is a sad, pointless, and all too quiet courtship, doomed as a result of his saving Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) from imprisonment. That is, doomed from only moments before he first set eyes on Lucie.
Donald Woods is thoroughly vanilla as Darnay, though back in Darnay's native France that was quite all right because his uncle, the Marquis St. Evremonde played by Basil Rathbone, is about the most colorful character you're going to encounter inside a black and white film. Darnay leaves France of his own free will and sails across the Channel in the company of Lucie and her recently freed father, Dr. Manette (Henry B. Walthall), who's just coming off of an 18 year stint in the Bastille, courtesy, of course, of Darnay's uncle, Evremonde. Upon their arrival one of his uncle's spies, Barsad (Walter Catlett), arranges to have Darnay arrested for treason at Evremonde's secret bequest. Young Darnay is defended by the good-humored barrister Stryver (Reginald Owen) and his assistant Sydney Carton. Carton manages to maneuver accuser Barsad with words and drink the night before the trial which the next day leads Barsad recanting his accusations in a very humorous court scene.
And so as Carton has freed Darnay so too has he doomed any potential romance with Lucie. When the innocent girl spots Carton holding up a lamp post on Christmas Eve she invites him to accompany her and Miss Pross, played with all the usual force and wry humor that Edna May Oliver always brings to the screen, to Church for Christmas service. Carton abides this kindhearted attempt to save him mistaking Lucie's charity of heart as romantic inclinations and so has his sobriety snapped when she finally confides to him that she's soon to marry Charles Darnay. After a few brief moments of the upright and secure Ronald Colman that we all recognize her happy news breaks him and Colman's face registers every possible nuance of despair, his scruffy appearance enhancing heartbreaking expressions that all begin from his eyes. Sydney Carton is functional in public, seriously depressed on his own before he manages a recovery at A Tale of Two Cities' climax which brings a nobility to his suffering.
But Carton's tale largely unfolds in England, back in France the people are the story. Things aren't going so well for the peasants. Troubles that had been simmering begin to boil when a man called Jacques sees his son killed by Evremond's speeding coach. Evremond is incensed at the inconvenience and orders his coachman to ride faster from now on. Unfortunately for the aristocrats of France this entire incident occurs outside of the De Farge's wine shop, a gathering place for future revolutionaries led by the terrifying Madame De Farge (Blanche Yurka) who spends all of her time behind the counter, and later at executions, knitting shrouds decorated by the insignias of some of the most dastardly aristocratic families in France. Taking a supreme place are those called Evremond, and that would include not only Basil Rathbone's fop but Donald Woods' sympathetic Darnay as well.
We first see the De Farge's after they call upon banker Jarvis Lorry (Claude Gillingwater), who brings Lucie to France with him in order to recover her father, Dr. Manette, whom the De Farges have given refuge inside the rooms of their shop. While Madame De Farge is already dour she has yet to develop into the revolutionary zealot which she is to become. Evremond's trampling of Jacques' child is fuel for the fire but it's not until the starving peasants of France follow a meat cart to an aristocrat's kennel that De Farge cries, "Why do you endure it? Why do you have to endure it? Why?!" The seeds of Revolution sprout from her call and begin to unfold underneath the same word, Why?, plastered across the screen, the text growing in size as the rebels accelerate their action finally storming the Bastille.
While Jack Conway* does a fine job directing the main storyline of A Tale of Two Cities, especially at showing off Colman's talents to their best effect, the French Revolution action sequence, surely the highlight of the film, is handled by the team of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. This is the same pair who would later collaborate as producer and director of a run of B horror films at RKO, most notably 1942's Cat People, which have only grown more well regarded with the passing of time. Their scene peaks when the mob is turned back by the firing of the Bastille's cannons, their fighting further halted by the arrival of the French military who position themselves between the peasants and the gates of the Bastille. As the camera glides across the bulging eyes of the anticipatory crowd we cheer along with the peasantry when the soldiers suddenly turn and fire upon the Bastille.
* Robert Z. Leonard also directed some of A Tale of Two Cities when Conway took ill during the filming.
This is the highpoint for the peasants as from there they tarnish their legacy in pounding their fist down too hard upon the aristocracy beheading not just their direct oppressors but any of their friends during their Reign of Terror. We're shown examples of their reach in A Tale of Two Cities such as Evremonde's somehow kind hearted attendent Gabelle (H.B. Warner), and even those who only depended upon the aristocracy for their living, such as the tragic seamstress played by doe-eyed Isabell Jewell, face their final fate at the guillotine.
But those are only ancillary characters, to make this all much more personal to us, the viewer, Madame De Farge convinces Gabelle to call upon Evremond's nephew, Lucie's beloved Charles Darnay. De Farge explains that Gabelle's only hope for his own survival is to have Darnay return to France and clear him as a friend of the revolutionaries. Sure that good Darnay will come to his aid, Gabelle composes the letter only to have Madame De Farge's sidekick, The Vengeance (Lucille La Verne, who's wicked cackle you'll recognize from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ), rip the page from his hands and lead a celebration that Gabelle realizes signifies not only his end but that of his friend Darnay as well.
A Tale of Two Cities is a rousing tale of good and evil, love and war, and yes, both the best and worst of times, but at it's center is the magnificently mixed-up Carton and Colman's towering talents. Interesting to note that Producer David O. Selznick originally wanted Colman to play both Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, but that Colman nixed it. How they settled on Donald Woods as Darnay after both Robert Donat and Brian Aherne were rumored I do not know, but while Woods doesn't do much to distinguish himself, he's capable enough and manages not to weigh down the film either.
Besides Colman other standouts include Elizabeth Allan's Lucie, Edna May Oliver's Pross, Reginald Owen's Stryver (no surprise on those last two!), and stage actress Blanche Yurka's Madame De Farge, who over the course of A Tale of Two Cities develops into no less than a monster. How none of these actors were nominated for an Academy Award is beyond me, with the case of Colman being especially puzzling. The film itself was one of 1937's ten nominated films, but The Great Ziegfeld (1936) captured the Oscar for Best Picture that year.
Continuing deeper into the cast, H.B. Warner didn't have much to do as Gabelle while Basil Rathbone competently hams it up as the evil Evremond. Henry B. Walthall, famed as the Little Colonel in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), is mildly disappointing as Dr. Manette, but his part seems somewhat thankless ranging from deranged mumblings about cobbling under an untamed beard to the well-groomed, polite and forgiving man of society. Still, a stronger actor really could have carved a more memorable performance out of the variety of a such a character, while Walthall comes off as bit too mechanical. Both Walter Catlett as conniving Barsad and Billy Bevan as grave robber turned messenger Jerry Cruncher deserve mention for enjoyable performances as well. Finally Isabel Jewell, despite only a few minutes of screen time at the end of the film arouses such sympathy that her seamstress is preserved in memory as much as any other character not named Carton.
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