A TALE OF TWO CITIES got lavish MGM treatment in this sturdy epic, released for Christmas of 1935. The 1859 novel by Charles Dickens had been done four times as a silent; this the first (and still foremost) sound feature. Producer David O. Selznick outdid himself in ’35, with this $1,232,000 epic following that same year his acclaimed versions of David Copperfield and Anna Karenina.
“Perhaps in death, I receive something I never had in life – I hold a sanctuary in the hearts of those I care for.”
Adapted by notable 20th-century scribes W.P. Lipscomb and S.N. Behrman, the rough justice saga of the French Revolution takes place between 1775 and 1792, includes the historic storming of the Bastille and climaxes with one of the best known final lines in literature, a gallant exit masterfully delivered by Ronald Colman’s self-doomed ‘Sydney Carton’.
“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.”
Though his career included an Oscar for A Double Life and discovering ‘Shangri-La’ in Lost Horizon, the role of Carton was Colman’s favorite: seven years before he shaved his signature mustache for the role he told an interviewer Carton “has lived for me since the first instant I discovered him in the pages of the novel.” For sure, generations of impressionists and inebriated party wags drew snickers or scowls with their affectionate imitations. It is hard to resist, since actor, character and declaration are so utterly Proto-Dude and Way Cool.
Further stellar turns are offered for some of the many supporting players. Basil Rathbone (enjoying a banner year) personifies aristocratic hauteur as the vile Marquis St. Evrémonde. Sad-eyed Isabel Jewell is touching as the condemned seamstress (unsung Jewel deserved a bigger career), while at the opposite end of sympathy is the deliciously nasty cackling from Lucille LaVerne as ‘The Vengeance’ (she later voiced the ‘Evil Queen’ in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs). E.E. Clive draws chuckles as a dotty judge. Reigning Terror over them all is the terrific Blanche Yurka as the guillotine-crazed ‘Madame DeFarge’: noted for her work on Broadway, this was the imposing Yurka’s debut in sound features (decades earlier, she’d had parts in two silents).
“You might – from your appearance – be the wife of Lucifer; yet you shall not get the better of me. I’m an Englishwoman! I’m your match!”
Jack Conway (Tarzan And His Mate, Boom Town) directed until he fell ill, then Robert Z. Leonard stepped in (uncredited). The second-unit work for the revolutionary sequences was given to with Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur, who finessed the exciting attack on the Bastille, a justifiable jaw-dropper employing massed thousands of extras surging over Cedric Gibbons extravagant sets. Oliver T. Marsh was the cinematographer, capturing superb close-ups of the many well-chosen bit players.
Money-wise, it placed 20th among 1935’s redoubtable array, Cogerson giving the domestic gross at $3,200,000. International playdates brought the tally up to $5,014,000.
Though released in late December of 1935, it was included in the Academy Awards roster for 1936, but only received two nods, Best Picture and Film Editing. Colman was overlooked and leaving Yurka off the nominee list for Supporting Actress (the category was new that year) was a cinema crime worthy of a public decapitation.
Go-to guru Leonard Maltin gives it a running time of 128 minutes. CineSavant’s eminently astute Glenn Erickson posts 126, as does the DVD your humble hovel habitué watched. TCM lops it as 120! The IMDB sides Lord Maltin. Of such “let ’em eat running times” tiffs are revolts made. Off with their edits!
In the vast cast swarm: Elizabeth Allan, Reginald Owen, Edna May Oliver, Henry B. Walthall, Donald Woods, Walter Catlett, H.B. Warner, Billy Bevan.