Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities (1935) - Movie Review

"Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth"

-Hark the Herald Angels Sing

Let's face it, A Tale of Two Cities is my favorite book. Thus, any adaptation is inevitably going to suffer from my extremely high expectations. My favorite may very well be The Dark Knight Rises. Kidding. Sort of. As of yet, no film version has come even close to my idea of How It Should Be (my screen-play is in the works, so keep an eye out, Hollywood), but the 1935 film is a pretty good attempt.

It's helpful with this film to have some familiarity with 30's movies. Considering it as among its fellows, it was very much ahead of its time, with clever cinematography, a tight script, a huge budget, and a decent cast. Of course, its greatest weaknesses are when it adhered to the then-common conventions, such as the ubiquitous sappy music, the occasionally choppy editing, and a one-dimensional female heroine.

And this is one point where I'd happily diverge from the book, for Lucie Manette is one of Dickens' most boring angelic females (and he had many). She could've given Mary Sue lessons. It might have been worse, and Elizabeth Allan is less cringeworthy on second viewings, but I'm still waiting on someone to create a character that justifies the "I Love Lucie" refrain issuing from seemingly every single man in the story.

In technicolor? Yes please.
As for the rest of the cast, they vary. The Dickensianly named Claude Gillingwater (Mr. Lorry) could be a long lost Muppet, almost matching Lucie for wide-eyed shock (Kenneth More is still the best Lorry). Edna May Oliver provides much of the comic relief as a brusque, feisty Ms. Pross. Stryver, Jerry Cruncher and son, John Barsad, and the Marquis St. Evremonde are all played with a great deal of ham, much like the caricatures Dickens wrote.

Ernest Defarge is suitably surly, and Madame Defarge...well, what do you do with a woman who embroiders her enemies' names into her knitting? Blanche Yurka plays her with a cool malevolence, finally bursting into full, venomous hatred. I enjoyed the amusing Old Bailey judge, E.E. Clive. Henry B. Walthall may very well be my favorite Dr. Manette, and H.B. Warner (Mr. Gower, from It's a Wonderful Life!) has a surprisingly good turn as Charles Darnay's tutor, M. Gabelle. Speaking of which, Donald Woods is a predictable Darnay, looking like a cardboard Superman for much of the film (Chris Sarandon is still the best.)

And what of the man himself? Well, I'm torn. Ronald Colman is certainly one of the most dashing actors ever to grace the silver screen. Darkly handsome, with a rich, soft voice, it's easy to see why he became such a symbol of the gentleman actor. But in this case, it's not entirely appropriate. He plays a man whom it is incredibly easy to love, but he doesn't play Sydney Carton. His drinking is only half-hearted; he is too old for the part; he is witty, funny, wise; there is nothing which Lucie could find unappealing except for, again, this mysterious "drinking," which is hardly noticeable. There is much talk about how he has squandered his life, how he is a broken man, but we hardly seen any of it. Who in their right mind would choose that insipid Frenchman? (Elizabeth Allan apparently said that she had to look away when acting with him, lest she be charmed into chucking Darnay and riding off into the sunset.)

That said, Colman is a wonderful protagonist, when taken as Colman and not Carton. And a protagonist is unquestionably what he is: poor Donald Woods never stood a chance. Thankfully, Colman did not play both roles, which was one of his (very sensible) stipulations on joining the project. It makes him even more endearing to know he had long wanted to play the part, and it marked one of the few occasions he ever agreed to shave his trademark mustache. His performance is also impressive given this was his first real graduation from comic films.

But now, enough with the cast. Some of the most awe-inspiring moments in the movie are the crowd scenes, featuring thousands of extras storming the Bastille and dancing madly in the streets of Paris. The movie sort of cramps its style by placing humongous subtitles on the screen at times to explain what's going on, but it's a rather Dickens thing to do, grandiloquent and a bit pompous. The choice of Hark the Herald Angels Sing as a theme song was inspired, thankfully relieving the otherwise terrible music.

The writers do a good job of organizing Dickens' plot, which can meander and jump back and forth - yet in doing so they often cut out much of the suspense by revealing major secrets early on (such as in Darnay and Dr. Manette's Conversation) or heavily implying what the ending will be (in practically every moment between Sydney and Lucie.)

From the first I had my own vivid idea of what the movie should look like (complete with a few Terrence Malick-esque sequences as Sydney Carton walks the Parisian night, and a soundtrack mixing cello and Matthew Perryman Jones), so I doubt I'll ever be satisfied with the visual side of it. Overall, however, this film is rightly lauded, especially if you haven't read the book (which, let me make it clear, makes you a despicable human being.) It's a beautiful portrait of grace, forgiveness, and sacrifice in a world clamoring for vengeance, and the only adaptation I've seen which uses the verse "I am the Resurrection and the life." But really, read the book.

4/5 stars.

Hannah Long

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