Tale of Two Cities, A (1935)

“There is a sickness these days which labels itself humanitarianism.”

Synopsis:
Just prior to the French Revolution, an alcoholic British lawyer (Ronald Colman) falls for a sweet young woman (Elizabeth Allan) whose father (Henry B. Walthalle) was held captive by the French ruling class for years — however, Allan’s romantic sights are set on the kind relative (Donald Woods) of an evil aristocrat (Basil Rathbone) whose fate is about to change as the people of France rise up in rebellion.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “popular adaptation of Dickens’s novel of the French Revolution, expensively produced by M-G-M”, is “slow in spots and the direction by Jack Conway is too restrained during the scenes after the common people take over”, but concedes that “the picture is well cast, has sweep, and captures the times in which it is set.” He adds that “Basil Rathbone makes a brief but effective appearance as a heartless marquis who’s upset that his horses might have been injured while trampling a peasant boy” (!), and notes that another highlight is “Blanche Yurka steal[ing] the film as the vengeful revolutionary Madame Defarge”, who engages in a “wrestling match with Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver).” Having never read this particular novel by Dickens, I found it a bit challenging to dive into the complex tale and care about the characters — but as soon as Colman entered the scene, I was more engaged: it actually took me a moment to recognize him, given how deeply immersed he is in his performance as “a crooked, heavy-drinking, politically apathetic English lawyer” who undergoes a significant change of heart. His role, as well as the fine cinematography and period sets, make this worth a look by those who are curious, but it’s not must-see for all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton
  • Atmospheric cinematography

Must See?
No, though of course Dickens fans will want to check it out.

Links:

One Response to “Tale of Two Cities, A (1935)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history – and as a valuable document re: French history.

    I don’t particularly agree with Peary that the film is slow in spots or that Conway’s direction is ever restrained. I find it rather compelling throughout. Colman is impressive this time out – as are the standout contributions by Oliver and Yurka (that girlfight!).

    I read the book in high school but what I recall most about it is the haunting imagery of Madame Defarge (as Dickens spells it) knitting while watching beheadings (though such witnessing is not depicted in the film).

    Midway (at the start of the Revolution), this is written on the screen: “This was the warning! If one tyrant could die, many could die. But the approaching footsteps of a bitter people found no echo in the mincing measures of the minuet.” …That put me in mind of the current GOP – as it should. If one notes their current behavior in ‘response’ to a pandemic, for example… one sees them as no different from the aristocrats of Dickens’ story. (Of course, there’s also the savagery of the citizens once they take power… but that’s another – equally shameful – matter.)

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