Warner Bros. // 1935 // 126 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dylan Charles (Retired) // February 5th, 2007
"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known."
A Tale of Two Cities is arguably one of the greatest works of fiction in the English language, a masterpiece of the written word. With Dickens's elaborate descriptions of Revolutionary France and with his great hero Sydney Carton, the novel has cemented its place in English literature.
In the hands of a lesser director, a movie based on this book would be unwieldy and fatted, or it would be trimmed to the point where it was a meaningless bit of fluff. In 1935 Jack Conway took a crack at it. And it turns out he's no lesser director.
A Tale of Two Cities opens on the eve of the French Revolution. In the streets of Paris, injustice is rampant, as the greed of the French Aristocrats (aristos) takes its toll on the peasants. The Marquis St. Evremonde (Basil Rathbone) is a notable example of aristo cruelty. Madame Defarge (Blanche Yurka), the leader of the Jacques revolutionaries, has her eye on him.
Meanwhile, the Marquis's nephew, Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) flees to London. He meets Lucie Mannette (Elizabeth Allan) and her father Doctor Mannette (Henry B. Walthall). When Darnay is arrested for treason, his legal counsel is the intelligent, but unambitious, drunk Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman).
With Darnay cleared of all charges and Sydney finding a fast friend in Lucie, all looks promising for these four -- until the Revolution and their pasts catch up with them during this reign of terror.
When adapting a book for the screen there is always trouble maintaining a balance between being faithful to the written work and not trying to cram every last detail into the script. When that book is also a classic work of literature, the problem is magnified ten-fold. Stray too far from the author's original tale and the movie theater will soon be filled with the wails of displeased and hostile English lit professors. And that's something that no one wants.
Such is not the case here. I could not have hoped for a better translation of one of my favorite books.
Jack Conway and the screenwriters (W.P. Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman) have set Dickens's words in motion. They have tightened the focus of the movie, while still keeping faithful to the source. They realize the importance of Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman, A Double Life) and so make sure to keep him in sight. While in the book he would disappear for a hundred pages at a time, in Conway's A Tale of Two Cities we are always aware of Sydney and his place in the overall scheme of things.
Colman's Sydney is well on his way to drinking himself into his grave. He's an intelligent man with zero ambition who regrets the life he hasn't lead. Colman takes a character who could be thoroughly unlikable and makes him the sympathetic focal point. His scene with Lowry toward the end, where they compare the lives they've each led, is bitterly sad without being unpalatably so. A lesser actor would have overwrought it with pathos, turning Sydney into a crying clown but Colman plays it straight and plays it true. He is one of the many highlights of A Tale of Two Cities.
Madame Defarge (Blanche Yurka) is Sydney's counterpoint in Paris. While Sydney is in slow decline in London, she is rising upward, a vicious leader of the Jacques, prepared to do what is necessary in order to bring down the aristos. As time passes, Defarge grows more hateful and less focused on the notion of justice -- and more on revenge. This shift within her mirrors the shift of the actual Revolution. Where once the Jacques just wanted social change, they now want bloody vengeance. With a lesser actress, Defarge would have devolved into raving, unsympathetic caricature. Yurka gives Defarge the humanity needed to make her a truly terrifying villain. When Darnay is on trial in the French "courts" for being an aristocrat, Defarge's testimony is a passionate, dramatic reveal that is done wonderfully and lets us all know why she hates the aristos so.
Charles Darnay (and his actor Donald Woods) is merely a small part in this drama: a foil for Sydney. It's an unenviable part to play. He is the Lazlo to Sydney's Rick; the brave and idealistic character who also happens to be painfully naïve. He rushes nobly into Revolutionary France to save a friend under the impression that he won't be stopped by the blue-blood-thirsty peasants. I don't think I really have to say what happens next.
Our love interest, the vision that gives Sydney the inspiration he needs to do what is right, is Lucie. She is defined by her kindness, but she is never cloying. Her kindness allows Sydney to wake-up from his self-hating lifestyle. The supporting cast do their jobs well. Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) is Lucie's fiercely protective nurse and provides comic relief for a majority of the movie until she actually goes toe-to-toe with Madame Defarge. She then shows us the stuff that English women are made of. Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) appears as the Marquis St. Evremonde. He's only on the screen for fifteen minutes or so, but he leaves a lasting impression. When his horses run over a peasant in the streets, he expresses far more concern for his horses than the hapless Jacques.
Both pre-Revolutionary France and Revolutionary France are bloody, violent places to be and, for a movie made in the 1930's, A Tale of Two Cities doesn't shy away from that violence. There are two scenes in particular that stick in my mind: a food riot and the storming of the Bastille. The riot involves dozens of peasants trying to steal meat that has been fed to the hunting dogs of the local noblemen. Men, women and children are killed in a skirmish with soldiers and while there's not much in the way of blood, it's still a brutal scene. The storming of the Bastille is a marvel to behold, especially when taking into account that the people there aren't the result of computers, but hundreds of extras.
Conway doesn't just do bloody well, though. His quieter scenes are just as powerful, such as when Sydney attends Christmas Mass with Lucie. The poignant scene in the snow shows us why Sydney does what he does for Lucie. Conway shows us the heart of a man who believes he has none and, for that, he has my respect.
Despite being more than 70 years old, the film doesn't show its age, sound and picture are clean and clear. A Tale of Two Cities has been given the treatment it deserves...sort of.
While the transfer is great, the extras are questionable. The radio show adaptation (with Ronald Colman reprising his role as Sydney Carton) is a wonderful thing to have and listen to as it's completely intact. They've even left in the commercials. The other features come out of left field: two cartoons and a short film of Audioscopiks (a fancy term for 3D glasses, as far as I can tell). I can only assume that they're trying to recreate a night at the movies in 1935. In all honesty though, I would have preferred more features specific to the movie itself. That being said, Audioscopiks is an interesting novelty as it details the wonders of 3D glasses and even has detailed instructions on how to use them.
My one, minor problem with this movie is the use of written words splashed over the montage of the actual revolution. It is cheesy to have the word "LIBERTY!" scrawled over scenes of the Bastille being overrun.
It takes finesse to turn beautiful words into beautiful imagery. The cast and crew had this finesse. They stayed true to Dickens and his work and in doing so, were able to create a movie that almost equals its source material.
The citizen is found, emphatically, Not Guilty. Madame Guillotine will go hungry tonight.
Review content copyright © 2007 Dylan Charles; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1935
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* "Audioscopiks" Short Film
* "Hey, Hey Fever" and "Honeyland" Cartoons
* A Tale of Two Cities Radio Show