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DVD SAVANT

A Tale of Two Cities
Motion Picture Masterpieces Collection


A Tale of Two Cities
Warner DVD
1935 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 126 min. / Street Date September 12, 2006 / 19.98 / Also available in the Motion Picture Masterpieces Collection with Treasure Island, Marie Antoinette, Pride and Prejudice and David Copperfield, at 49.98
Starring Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan, Edna May Oliver, Donald Woods, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Blanche Yurka, Isabel Jewell, Henry B. Walthall
Cinematography Oliver T. Marsh
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Conrad A. Nervig
Original Music Herbert Stothart
Revolutionary sequences arranged by Val Lewton, Jacques Tourneur
Written by W.P. Lipscomb, S.N. Behrman from the novel by Charles Dickens
Produced by David O. Selznick
Directed by Jack Conway

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A Tale of Two Cities is possibly the best of David O. Selznick's high-toned literary adaptations of the 1930s, a tightly-constructed thriller that streamlines the majority of Charles Dickens' complex narrative into just over two hours. Star Ronald Colman will always be identified with the noble sacrifice of Sydney Carton: "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done ..." The book has been filmed often but the near-perfect cast, makes this version the keeper. W.P. Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman's screenplay has the emotional bite of a good silent melodrama.

Synopsis:

Banker Jarvis Lorry (Claude Gillingwater) tells Londoner Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) that her father Dr. Manette (Henry B. Walthall) didn't die in a French prison seventeen years ago, and is now in the care of Jacobin sympathizer Madame Therese Defarge (Blanche Yurka). Reunited and on their way back to England, Lucie, Jarvis, and Dr. Manette meet Charles Darnay (Donald Woods), a progressive French aristocrat who has changed his name to shed his association with his cruel and scheming brother, the Marquis St. Evrémonde (Basil Rathbone). The venal Evrémonde arranges for the paid perjurer Barsad (Walter Catlett) to testify that Darnay has stolen some English military secrets, but Darnay is saved in court by the crafty barrister Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), whose job is to make it seem as if his employer C.J. Stryver (Reginald Owen) is the better lawyer. Carton's low self esteem and sense of purposelessness is alleviated by meeting Lucie Manette, with whom he falls in love. Lucie marries Charles Danay, so Sydney settles for the role of family friend devoted to Lucie's happiness. Five years pass. The Bastille is stormed and the French Revolution begins; Madame Defarge is now a leading member of the tribunal that is ordering hundreds of aristocrats to the guillotine. She tricks Danay's old tutor Gabelle (H.B. Warner) into sending for Danay. Danay heads for France, not realizing that Defarge wants revenge against all the Evrémondes for destroying her family. Dr. Manette and Lucie are quick to follow, accompanied by their daughter, Lucie's guardian Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver), and Jarvis Lorry. Will Charles Danay escape the guillotine?

Our high school teachers were fond of telling us that movies were no substitute for reading a good book, yet they'd surely have rushed to show A Tale of Two Cities class. It's one of several 'quality' productions by David O. Selznick that follow the original texts with the kind of fidelity shown in a Classics Illustrated comic book.

A Tale of Two Cities the book is divided into three major sections, Recalled to Life, The Golden Thread and The Track of a Storm. There's a great deal of plot here along with Dickens' signature web of interrelated characters. Charles Danay's true identity is hidden from most of the characters for quite some time, and the fierce Madame Defarge turns out to have a direct connection to the Evrémonde family as well. Although a wealth of detail is naturally missing, only a few of the book's major plot points are skipped. For instance, knave-turned-good guy Barsad is revealed to be Solomon Pross, Miss Pross's long-lost brother. Any more 'family surprises' and the characters would have to start comparing birthmarks.

Selznick gives the film a marvelous cast. Ronald Colman is the embodiment of Sydney Carton's disillusion. The only complaint with the writing is that Carton must twice telegraph his character arc by telling Lucie that he's willing to lay down his life for her and those she loves. Although the scenes are straight out of the book, in the compressed film they make Carton seem like a guy looking for an excuse to die. Carton has no inner conflict with his sacrifice. He merely stares with a melancholy satisfaction as he's shunted to the scaffold, and even affords himself the luxury of comforting a fellow condemned innocent played by Isabel Jewell (The Seventh Victim). The movie stays with Carton, withholding any reassuring return to the beneficiaries of his generosity -- an unusually mature ending for a studio film. The film's final Bible quote may play as a censor imposition, but comes straight from the book.

Carton is not the only main character in the book, and the movie robs Charles Danay slightly by not giving him a chance to object to Carton's dungeon swaperoo scheme. Almost everyone else benefits greatly from the adaptation. Elizabeth Allan must have taken her role in Mark of the Vampire as a trade-off for getting this plum assignment. Edna May Oliver is able to spice up a normally clichéd part by taking the offensive in the film's only fight scene. Basil Rathbone is properly hiss-able; after his coach runs down a little boy he reprimands the Paris rabble for risking injury to his horses. The interesting Blanche Yurka (Queen of the Mob) is a zealot with a heavy self-justification to murder every 'aristo' she can find. Lucille LaVerne is the much-imitated character called "The Vengeance," a toothless hag cackling insanely at every mention of the guillotine.

This is one of the MGM pictures that solidified David O. Selznick's reputation as a class-act producer. Although it only received two Academy nominations (the studio was probably too busy promoting Thalberg productions) it was considered a total success. Conrad Nervig earned his best editing nomination in the powerful second-unit storming of the Bastille sequence. To supervise that set piece Selznick assigned a young associate Val Lewton, who chose short-subject director Jacques Tourneur to direct. The association did both of them a lot of good, especially when Selznick generously awarded them screen credit.

Selznick's own artistic contribution can be gauged by his florid, silent-movie style inter-titles, still in use in 1935. Only David O. could fill a screen with dancing French aristocrats and then cover that with a text phrase reading, "But the approaching footsteps of a bitter people found no echo in the mincing measures of the minuet."


Warners' DVD of A Tale of Two Cities is a good encoding of a cleaned-up film element of acceptable quality. 1935 film stocks weren't the best for duplication but the picture holds up well. For extras, the disc includes a 2-D copy of what was originally a 3-D novelty short called Audioscopiks, a pair of color Harman-Ising cartoons featuring Bosko and some singing bees, a trailer and a Lux radio adaptation introduced by C.B. DeMille and starring Ronald Colman.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Tale of Two Cities rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Short Audioscopiks, Cartoons: Hey, Hey Fever and Honeyland, Lux Radio Theater radio show adaptation starring Ronald Colman, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 15, 2006

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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