Astonishing, but even as I begin to formulate my thoughts on MGM’s lavishly appointed production of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1935) I can almost hear Ronald Colman’s mellifluous and cultured cynic, Sydney Carton hypothesizing, “It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” Indeed, the film’s producer, David O. Selznick could have done with just such a respite, having bounced around the studio circuit after the death of his father, with trend-setting, though equally as problematic stints as an executive at Paramount and RKO. By the time Selznick elected to produce A Tale of Two Cities he had already been on the Metro back lot once before; ousted for his outspokenness by VP in Charge of Production, Irving Thalberg. That was in 1929. Two years later, Thalberg, whose autonomy during the early silent era had made Metro the envy of virtually every other studio in Hollywood, suffered the first in a series of near-fatal heart attacks after returning home from the star-studded premiere of his latest passion project, Grand Hotel (1932). During his convalescence, MGM’s President, Louis B. Mayer went over Thalberg’s head, appealing to Loewe’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenck to draw up a new agreement; one to effectively splinter Thalberg’s autonomy and place himself atop the throne as the undisputed monarch of all he surveyed.
In the beginning, Mayer had not harbored such animosity towards Thalberg. In fact, he had backed his young Vice President against any encroaching dissent. And why not? Thalberg’s uncanny knack for picking winners had put MGM on the map. However, increasingly, his ambitions knew no master. According his own likes, Thalberg was going to do it better, do it bigger and give it more class than virtually all the other studios combined. He would spend whatever it took to shoot and re-shoot a picture until it was just right – or as near as his artisans could achieve. By the early 1930’s, Thalberg had elevated the company’s prestige, decidedly in ways that did not appeal to Mayer. Their philosophies diverged on a single point; Thalberg endeavoring to make fewer pictures per annum but at a premium that would draw in even bigger audiences. Mayer reasoned Thalberg’s go-for-broke mentality far too gauche and risky, especially given the nation’s recent plummet into the Great Depression. As such, Mayer readily feared Thalberg’s monies spent would not equate to monies earned. Despite this growing chasm in their artistic differences, Metro continued to produce the sorts of entertainments both men could take considerable personal pride. But now, with Schenck’s complicity Mayer had effectively taken over the studio. A new contract was drawn up: Thalberg, taken down a peg: no longer VP of the whole menagerie, but manning his own division within the parameters of Mayer’s authority. At the same time, Mayer wasted nothing to bring in fresh blood to reinvigorate and fill in the gaps – stalwart producers/directors like Howard Hawks and David O. Selznick – men owing their allegiance to him – and collectively nicknamed Mayer’s ‘college of cardinals’.
It ought to be noted, first, that Metro functioned implicitly, and by design, on an ‘art by committee’ approach to making movies; a trickling down of the creative juices for which Selznick had very little use. Thus, Selznick’s first dry run at MGM had been mired by interference on all sides. His second bite at the apple, after leaving Paramount and RKO, would afford him the kind of autonomy Thalberg had enjoyed before his heart attack; a chance for Selznick to practically be his own boss – if, with the slightest consideration given Mayer, who also happened to be his father-in-law. In reference to Hemingway - and Hollywood nepotism run amuck – Selznick quickly became a joke around the back lot - “the son-in-law also rises”. It was too much of an indignation for Selznick to take sitting down, and he could never quite forget or forgive the begrudging considerations afforded him. Perhaps to prove anything Thalberg had done he could do even better – or, just as well – Selznick wasted no time assembling an all-star dramedy along the lines of Grand Hotel; the exuberant, Dinner At Eight (1933). Since then, Selznick’s pursuit of perfection had yielded several masterpieces, including Dancing Lady (the musical that introduced Fred Astaire to moviegoers and revived Joan Crawford’s sagging career), Viva Villa!, a definitive adaptation of David Copperfield, and likewise, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (both made and release in 1935); Selznick now considered something of the éminence grise for literary adaptations; a sub-genre that had great appeal for Thalberg.
A Tale of Two Cities really ought to have been a much better picture. Without question, it began life as a far lengthier one; almost three hours when sneak-peeked at Long Beach to, as Selznick later recalled, “an audience of rowdy sailors and their dates.” From the outset, Selznick had campaigned to secure Ronald Colman for the part of Sydney Carton, a role tailor-made to the Brit-born superstar. Too bad, in the interim, Selznick once more began to encounter needling opposition; objections about hiring Jack Conway to direct and grumblings from his Director of Photography, Oliver Marsh over the staging of one of Colman’s lesser soliloquies Selznick wanted shot entirely for mood, lit only by candlelight. “Every scene was a problem,” Marsh later mused, “…we got it by using a faster film and opening up the aperture all the way…but the most difficult scenes were in Defarge’s wine shop, shooting through real windows to capture action taking place both inside and out simultaneously.” Despite Selznick’s fastidiousness, the production moved along at a fairly aspiring clip and without incident; Selznick hiring Val Lewton, to provide research and coverage on the climactic storming of the Bastille.
Yet, in hindsight, what the picture lacks is continuity in Selznick’s usual unwavering tenacity to micromanage every last facet of its production. During the aforementioned Bastille deluge, as example, it is rather noticeable a handful of extras, costumed as women, are actually burly male stunt doubles; a pair of them reused yet again as stand-ins during the brutal confrontation between Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) and Madame Therese De Farge (Blanche Yurka). At some point, Selznick simply gave in; likely, antsy and understandably preoccupied with his anticipated move into the old Thomas Ince Studios; soon to become Selznick International’s headquarters, only a stone’s throw from Culver City’s front gates. Perhaps Selznick had had enough in what he likely perceived as the willful sabotage of his best endeavors to elevate the overall culture and prestige of the picture-making biz from the inside. Mayer would not have agreed, although Thalberg may have, if only Selznick had not burned his bridges there a decade earlier. Thus, as A Tale of Two Cities neared completion, Selznick elected to go over both men’s heads and rattle off a rather scathing memo to Nicholas Schenck about Metro’s lack of publicity – or rather, the kind of publicity he, Selznick, would have wished to precede the general release of his swan song.
If only Selznick had chosen a more diplomatic recourse, even to simply address his woes to Schenck directly, he might have garnered a few browning points. But Selznick had the chutzpah to carbon-copy his memorandum to virtually every executive he felt had besmirched him during his brief stay; Metro’s PR man, Howard Dietz, taking great exception upon reading the accusations and almost immediately firing off his own rebuttal, while carbon-copying Schenck and virtually all the execs who had been sent the previous address by Selznick, topped off with “You remind me of the bisexual Marquis who, when asked which he prefers – men or women – replies, ‘I like them both, but there ought to be something better!’” Selznick blood was brought to a boil. But he was to receive an even greater, if as unexpected admonishment as his sendoff, this time from Schenck. Forced to take sides, Schenck stood behind Dietz. In his memo to Selznick, Schenck accused Selznick of lacking humility and gratitude for the time and luxuries he had been afforded while at MGM; Schenck suggesting Selznick had enjoyed something of a ‘free ride’ and been spoiled to simply expect he could demand more of whatever he wanted without question. Schenck’s memo concluded by assuring Selznick he could not.
Thus, A Tale of Two Cities hit theaters with very little fanfare at the tail end of 1935; well-received by the public and critics, though with something of a colossal thud to mark Selznick’s departure from MGM. In more recent times, the picture’s reputation has been equally blunted by rumors of what it might have been, or rather, had been before all the cuts were made after the first prevue. Indeed, topping out at three hours, A Tale of Two Cities might well have possessed that spark of true genius with which a goodly sum of Selznick period pictures are justly celebrated; a Dickensian epic of unimpeachable scope. The storming of the Bastille, with its thousands of extras flooding Metro’s back lot Ruritanian streets, charging up the drawbridge with pitchforks in hand, and shot from a very high angle, perhaps, even foreshadows the approach Selznick would choose in handling the iconic moment when Scarlett O’Hara arrives at the railroad depot in Gone With the Wind to survey the mind-numbing casualties littering its stockyards. And Selznick ends A Tale of Two Cities on a no less mind-bogglingly opulent sequence; jeering crowds, cluttered by the hundreds into a square, superbly framed by some convincing matte work to suggest Paris, the rabble gathered to witness the beheading of the aristocracy; the razor-sharp chop of the guillotine, juxtaposed with the wistful camaraderie between a wrongly accused seamstress (Isabel Jewell) and Colman’s magnanimous Sydney Carton, successfully traded as the sacrificial lamb; Charles Darney, nee - Evrémonde (Donald Woods).
Alas, at exactly a minute over two hours, the theatrical cut of A Tale of Two Cities somehow lacks emphasis on its story-telling. Instead, it devolves into a series of highly theatrical vignettes, the screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman drawing not only from Dickens, but Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, M. Cléry’s Journal of the Temple, and, Mademoiselle des Écherolles’ and M. Nicholas’ The Memoirs; suffering from the gout of history at the expense of solid character development. Viewed today, the picture unquestionably has its virtues, beginning – and practically ending – with Ronald Colman’s supremely edifying performance. Part, if not all of Colman’s screen appeal is to be unearthed in the subtleties of his intonation; shifting from callous disregard to a profound compassion for humanity almost in a single sentence; his second to last moment, affectionately shared with the seamstress, reeking of bittersweet self-discovery for the man he might otherwise have become.
The other great performance is owed to Blanche Yurka, an insidious and vindictive Madame De Farge. While Colman’s reputation has managed, mercifully, to weather the sands of time, Yurka’s today is, alas, largely forgotten; a consummate pro, repeatedly typecast as stern, middle-aged frumps, occasionally possessing clear-eyed compassion to rival her intimidating doggedness. There are flashes of Yurka’s beginnings as a talented opera singer in her Madame De Farge; a weighted theatricality with a tinge of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables as she menaces from the pulpit, championing Darney’s public execution as vengeance for the crimes perpetuated upon her family by his uncle, Marquis St. Evrémonde (Basil Rathbone). Indeed, A Tale of Two Cities would have been a ‘far, far’ more exquisite piece of cinema if all – or any – of the others in the picture rivaled either Colman’s or Yurka’s talent. Yet, despite some very competent contract players assigned this task, virtually all are forgettable; the worst of the lot, the romantic leads; Donald Wood and Elizabeth Allen – fresh faces entirely lacking in any intangible star quality. Basil Rathbone is a formidable baddie, but offed much too soon. Reginald Owen is his usual comic relief as solicitor, C.J. Stryver, seemingly inept at the law and lost without Carton’s influence. Billy Bevan is a rather amusedly befuddled schemer. But Henry B. Walthrall and H.B. Warner are utterly wasted as the sages of the piece; Dr. Manette and Darney’s tutor, Gabelle.
A Tale of Two Cities begins with inserted text torn directly from Dickens’ prose. “It was the best of times…it was the worst of times…” and so on and so forth. The device of book-ending a celluloid adaptation of a great novel was nothing new. Arguably, by 1935, it was a rather foregone part of the program. Yet increasingly, A Tale of Two Cities relies on titles not from Dickens to cover large gaps in the narrative timeline. Presumably, these were added in after Selznick made his cuts to the 3-hour prevue version. Alas, they are unevenly interspersed and take the audience out of the story, drawing their attention to the fact whole portions of the book’s plot seem to be missing. Selznick gives us the Cole’s Notes treatment of Dickens instead. From this inauspicious beginning, we regress to an inn somewhere in England where Mr. Jarvis Lorry Jr. (Claude Gillingwater) of Tellson’s Bank is about to inform Lucy Manette (Elizabeth Allen) that her father, presumed dead, is still very much alive; newly released from eighteen years in the Bastille and presently in the care of Madame and Ernest De Farge (Mitchell Lewis). Naturally, this news comes as something of a shock to Lucy, who, along with Lorry and her servant, Miss Pross, immediately sets sail for France to be reunited.
The De Farge’s manage a wine shop, quietly overseeing and promoting the groundswell of public animosity shared by the rabble against the aristocracy. Who can really blame them, with abominable examples like the Marquis St. Evrémonde, instructing his coachman to irresponsibly race through the cluttered streets, resulting in the death of a young boy, trampled beneath the galloping hooves of his team of horses. Evrémonde is unmoved, collectively chastising the rabble as being irresponsible parents. Upon returning to his estate, the Marquis discovers his nephew Charles, already packed and preparing to leave. Evidently, the young Evrémonde does not share his uncle’s views, either of the people or the critical situation fast enveloping France with mounting fear and dissention towards its ‘artisos’. It will take a revolution for the Marquis to see things more clearly. Changing his name to Darney, Charles admonishes his uncle for abusing his privileges. Evrémonde is jealous, conspiring with a servant, Morveau (John Davidson) to hatch a plot. A staged event will result in Charles’ arrest just as soon as his boat docks in England.
Crossing the Channel, Charles and Lucy become acquainted under Lorry’s watchful eye. Charles is obviously smitten and takes certain liberties to procure an invitation to the Manette’s. Alas, barely on English soil, an incident is staged by Barsad (Walter Catlett), a conspirator loyal to the Marquis. Charles is immediately arrested and C.J. Stryvers is hired to defend the case. But Stryvers is a bumbler at best. Mercifully, his underling, Sydney Carton possesses a keen mind and a streak of his own petty larceny to overcome the seemingly insurmountable evidence amassed against their client. Cornering Barsad in a presumably ‘friendly’ drinking game, Sydney gleans a confession from his lips, later used to discredit his testimony at trial. The charges against Charles are dismissed, leaving him free to pursue Lucy, whose faith in Charles has never waned. Charles feels it his duty to confess his true identity to Dr. Manette; almost certain that in doing so he will wreck his romantic chances with Lucy. But Charles has underestimated the doctor’s ability to forgive his enemies – particularly, since Charles has disavowed virtually any familial association with his uncle. Sydney is queerly moved by Lucy’s tenderness, even more so after she invites him to dinner, encouraging a friendship Sydney discovers to be most rewarding. It can never be love, as Lucy’s heart belongs to Charles and vice versa. The two are eventually married and have a child, also named Lucie (Fay Chaldecott), whom Sydney comes to adore.
Back in France, the Marquis is murdered by the father of the child he road down in the streets; news of the murder spreading far and wide. Revolution breaks out in France. The Bastille is stormed, defended at cannon point by the King’s Guard. Just when it looks as though the revolutionaries shall lose, the militia arrives – not to break up their rioting, but rather to partake; muskets aimed in the cause of freedom and liberty. The monarchy is toppled and anarchy sweeps Paris; the guillotine regularly lopping off the heads of members of the aristocracy, but also anyone who dares oppose this reign of terror managed by Madame De Farge. Charles former tutor, Gabelle, is taken hostage; made by De Farge to sign a false letter begging Charles’ return to testify on his behalf. Deviously, De Farge has no intent of letting Gabelle live once his signature has been committed to paper. Gabelle is knifed and the letter sent; De Farge determined to see Charles beheaded to satisfy her crafty abhorrence to see every last Evrémonde dead.
Charles naively returns to France and is almost immediately arrested and imprisoned. Learning of his incarceration, Doctor Manette and Lucy, Sydney and Miss Pross rush to attend Charles’ trial; a mockery of justice. Doctor Manette appeals to the rabble to spare Charles’ life. Surely, he would not have given his consent for his only daughter to marry an Evrémonde if the venom of the Marquis, responsible for his own imprisonment in the Bastille, ran through Charles’ veins. Esteemed by the masses, the doctor’s testimony is taken at face value. But now, Madame De Farge takes to the pulpit, decrying Manette as a feeble old man who has lost his way to see justice served. De Farge wants blood spilled for her mother, father and the sibling all murdered by the Marquis. She challenges the court to reconsider how many lives the Evrémondes have destroyed, and demands the satisfaction of seeing their entirely bloodline wiped out. Stirred by her vindictive muckraking, the people elect that Charles Darney must die. Having miserably failed to prove his son-in-law’s innocence, Dr. Manette begins to lose his grip on reality; regressing into memories of his own tortured years of imprisonment in the Bastille. The next afternoon Lucy naively attends De Farge at her wine shop with her daughter in tow, pleading for Charles’ life, but to no avail. Later, De Farge plots to have Lucy and the child killed. Wisely recognizing her error in judgement, Sydney encourages Lucy to take the girl and leave Paris at once. He shall remain behind to attend to matters.
Unable to see any other way out of this impossible situation, Sydney elects to be smuggled into the Bastille the night before Charles’ execution. Knowing he would never agree to this bait and switch, Sydney chloroforms Charles, employing Barsad to escort him to safety while he remains behind in Charles’ cell. On the day of his public execution, Charles is already on the outskirts of Paris. Meanwhile, Miss Pross makes ready to leave the city with Lucy, Mr. Lorry and the couple’s young daughter in tow. Determined they should all come to an untimely end, Madame De Farge sneaks into the house with a small musket pistol hidden beneath her skirts. Intercepting the vial woman, Miss Pross bars De Farge’s way, wrestling her to the ground. De Farge and Pross continue to struggle for the gun until it goes off, killing De Farge. Meanwhile, Sydney comes face to face with a seamstress accused of loyalist sympathies to the aristocracy. The poor girl is innocent, but wild with fear. Knowing the Manette’s well, she immediately recognizes that the man pretending to be Charles is somebody else. The girl relies on Sydney tp comfort and, in a relatively brief time, he manages to inculcate a sense of calm from within. The girl is grateful and marches valiantly to her death; Sydney, immediately following on the steps of the guillotine. As the blade is raised hirer and hirer along its scaffold, Sydney hypothesizes Dickens’ immortal line: “It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known”; the camera panning upward, sparing us the grotesqueness of these atrocities already committed, and the one about to take place.
This penultimate sacrifice made by Sydney Carton should have ended A Tale of Two Cities. Alas Selznick, as though to gild the lily and quite unable to leave well enough along, has added a Biblical quotation from John 11:25 - “I am the Resurrection and the Life: He who believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” The quote is fitting, and yet, somehow pushes the poignancy of the moment over the top; now, overwrought and lacking the subterfuge for which other Selznick period costume dramas - most notably, David Copperfield (1935) - remain justly celebrated. Thus, and only in hindsight, the best moment in A Tale of Two Cities remains the storming of the Bastille; a tour de force in stage action, orchestrated with all the resonance and charge of extras a prestige movie made at MGM at its zenith can afford. It is the colossal spirit of the moment that proves infectious. To be certain, there are elements of its power and prestige in Blanche Yurka’s hell fire and brimstone admonishment, determined to condemn an innocent man to death; better still, in the near lyrical affliction of self-sacrifice as Colman’s Carton bids a silent farewell to this world; also, the meaningless life he has snuffed from it, now to be taken back from him. Colman’s reactions to the crowd’s hot-blooded sport of beheading are as unfathomable as the headless remains piled up somewhere off camera; his Carton stoically surveying this audience of his detractors with sad-eyed clarity. He might indeed believe in that ‘far, far better rest than (he) has ever known’, as the world that now envelopes is hardly a fine place with virtues worth preserving.
If only the other scripted episodes in the picture had lived up to these, or at least been acted with as much artful competency, this A Tale of Two Cities might have long since entered the annals as the definitive version. Certainly, it remains without peer for its handling of Carton’s execution. To be sure, there have been innumerable remakes; virtually all of them approaching the material much too on the nose to thoroughly satisfy. Colman’s Carton is both magnanimous and sobering as he steps before the scaffold. His performance has depth of character to recommend it; and class, and, of course, that honeyed and dreamy voice to make Dickens’ prose leap off the page; more emotionally satisfying still as great cinema, leaping right off the screen and all the way back to the last row of seats in the theater. Whatever girth it lacks elsewhere, for these brief glimpses into Sydney Carton’s surrendering soul, once seen, never to be expunged from the consciousness, Selznick’s A Tale of Two Cities best endures. It is still not a great movie. But it is a highly enjoyable, and occasionally compelling, one.
Regrettably, Warner Home Video’s DVD is blunted by a fairly abysmal transfer. For starters, contrast levels appear to have been boosted, leaving whole portions looking bland and washed out. Worse, edge enhancement has been rather liberally applied, resulting in some thoroughly distracting halos and a lot of image instability; background details, shimmering and/or breaking apart. Age-related artifacts are present, but on the whole do not terribly distract. The grayscale tonality in this B&W image is weak, the mid-register occasionally bleached out to the point where fine detail in faces is completely absent. I would have expected better, and will hope for more if and when the Warner Archive undertakes to remaster this deep catalog title for Blu-ray. The mono audio exhibits slight hiss and pop during quiescent moments. There are a few short subjects included; virtually none, directly related to the making of the movie. Bottom line: A Tale of Two Cities is a movie that should be seen again – just not this way. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)