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A Tale of Two Cities (December 2, 2010)

The Dickens novel about the French revolution was first published as a serial in an English magazine in 1859. A silent film of the story was made in 1917 for Fox by director Frank Lloyd. In that version, the actor William Farnum played both Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay. It is an important point in the plot of the novel that these two characters resemble each other. In 1934 Lloyd planned to remake A Tale of Two Cities for Fox, but Fox decided to drop its plans for the film when it learned MGM planned to film the story as well, and that MGM would reimburse Fox for its expenses.
Ronald Colman was to play Sydney Carton in the Fox production and was borrowed by MGM from Fox’s successor company, Twentieth Century Fox, for this movie. Colman resisted playing both Carton and Darnay, and the two roles were played by different actors, which the producer, David Selznick, who had produced David Copperfield, felt was a good move that bolstered the picture’s dramatic illusion as it concluded. Selznick saw inherent difficulties in making A Tale of Two Cities, writing, “It is amazing that Dickens had so many brilliant characters in David Copperfield and practically none in A Tale of Two Cities, and herein lies the difficulty. The book is sheer melodrama and when the scenes are put on the screen, minus Dickens’ brilliant narrative passages, the mechanics of melodramatic construction are inclined to be more than apparent, and, in fact, to creak…(I) think that when I get all through, the picture will be a job of which I will be proud – but it is and will be entirely different than David Copperfield.” Selznick felt that the dialogue in the novel was stilted, and not as natural as the dialogue in David Copperfield, the novel. Much of the dialogue in the film of David Copperfield came directly from the book. The dialogue in A Tale of Two Cities was written by S.N. Behrman, and he tried to repair the problems Selznick saw in the book.

The film had eighteen months of pre-production before filming, which took place from June to August, 1935. The movie was released at Christmas, 1935. The director was Jack Conway, a talented but not renowned director who made a wide range of different kinds of films during his career at MGM during the 30s and 40s. He fell ill during the production and MGM directors Robert Leonard and Clarence Brown substituted for him on some scenes. Jacques Tourneur directed the second unit scenes depicting the French revolutionary war and the fall of the Bastille. The critic David Thomson writes “Dolly Tree’s costumes are especially good, and Cedric Gibbons did the excellent sets in a photographic style that is invariably nocturnal—Oliver T. Marsh was the cameraman.” The film received one Oscar nomination, for best picture, but lost to another costume picture, Warners’ The Life of Emile Zola with Paul Muni.

Many critics think that Ronald Colman’s performance in this film was the best of his career, even with no Oscar nomination. Some of the same actors that we saw in David Copperfield appear again here – Elizabeth Allen, Edna May Oliver, Basil Rathbone, and the child actress Fay Chaldicott, and the ensemble cast is highlighted by many outstanding character actors at their best. Madame Defarge is played, in a bravura performance, by Blanche Yurka, a Broadway actress making her debut in films in this picture. I hope you enjoy this historical drama from 1935, A Tale of Two Cities.