Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

Director: Jack Conway
Starring: Ronald Colman, Elizabeth Allan

Following the success of MGM’s production of David Copperfield, directed by George Cukor, Hollywood’s most lavish studio of the time would release yet second feature for 1935 based on yet another masterpiece by the English author Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities allows once again for MGM the chance to produce a period piece, which the studio seemed to love to make, and did better than most other studios with thanks to their far deeper pockets and literal armies of artists and decorators. In this adaptation of a Dickens classic we receive a fine production filled with good depth of emotion sharing the sorrow of want, jealousy, loneliness, and sacrifice. It makes for a well artistically assembled film directed by Jack Conway with beautiful acting, art direction, and cinematography, most of all leaving you with a sense of sadness that the original literary work contained instead of the polished and positive Hollywood endings many times slapped on my Hollywood during the era.

A Tale of Two Cities is a dramatic adaption of the Charles Dickens novel, about one man’s plight in discovering that he cannot have the happiness that he wants, but finds peace in his own sacrifice that others he cares for can live in happiness, set to the background of the rise of the French Revolution. Sydney Carton (Ronald Coleman) is a creatively intelligent, yet alcoholic English attorney who helps French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods) escape charges of treason after leaving Paris for London for his sympathy to the downtrodden masses. Carton, whom shares a similar likeness to Darnay, however falls in love with the charming Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allen), who is romantically linked with Darnay. However, Carton knowing he will never have someone like her for his own, falls into a deeper depression, mainly at the bottom of a bottle. Carton being a good man, does not hurt anyone with his troubles, rather contains his inner struggles, and cares for those he is fond of. When a plot is set to capture and execute Darnay for treason when he returns to Paris, Carton helps Darnay escape the prison, taking his place due to their similar features, ultimately sacrificing himself to the guillotine for his care of Darnay and Lucie being able to live happily together.

The story is a sad one about the inner struggles of one man as he tries to be good and care for others, but never really finding the benefits in his own life. To watch the flawed character of Carton as he moves himself forward to doom for the better of others makes for a very Christian tale as one man sacrifices his life for another. Jack Coway, director of such films as Red-Headed Woman and Viva Villa!, creates a wonderful canvas on which for this story to be told. He captures, with the fine acting job of Ronald Colman, the internal struggles of Carton so clearly, but without having the character say too much, which is a change from the usual films of the day. Conway’s visuals are masterful in portraying the mood set in each scene as we watch our hero move his way to ultimate sacrifice, hitting is paramount point with the ending shot as the camera pans up away from Carton as we hear the guillotine fall, claiming its sacrificial lamb for the wrongfully accused Darnay. It’s a sad tale, but strangely leaves you satisfied with the story of sacrifice for the ultimate good.

The film begins surrounded by the story of Lucie and Darnay, played by Elizabeth Allen and Donald Woods, long before we meet Colman as Carton, leaving it to be important that we get attached to these characters before the hero and main plot takes its place. Allen was an English actress who had started her career in the drama Alibi, working in her native country before finding a contract for MGM and moving to the US. For 1935 she would best be remembered for her work in both of the studio’s Dickens adoptions, appearing in David Copperfield earlier in the year. Woods as an actor feels less polished, a smaller known performer from B pictures that serves as a clean, righteous man in this love story. His lack of range would be from the story, not necessarily himself, for he only sets up for Colman’s performance and the flawed hero.

Ronald Colman does a wonderful job in carrying the picture. Playing the role of the good-hearted, but heavily blemished Englishman puts a great deal on Colman’s shoulders in this film. The feature would be produced somewhat around Colman and the execution of his acting. As the novel dictates Carton and Darnay look very similar, driving the main points of the story as Darnay gets the girl, despite Carton having similar handsome features, and Carton’s ability to fool guardsmen that he is Darney at the time of execution. With this point heavily in mind it is conceived that the roles of Carton and Darnay be played by the same man to further drive this point and create the tension of the characters similarities. However when Colman signed on to the picture he insisted that he play only Carton, focusing on his plight and depth, leaving the role of Darnay for another actor, ending up with Donald Woods. Woods and Colman share very little similarities physically so it was needed to be let known in the writing that the two are to have looked alike in some way by those in the film. Colman’s performance would be praised and greatly marketed by the studio as one of the finest performances on screen. His acting is very good, but not the best of the year, as seen with no nominations for an Academy Award.

A Tale of Two Cities makes for a compelling story that can be enjoyed by those that have never read the novel, which is vital in producing a picture. Praised by critics the film would be nominated for two Academy Awards for the year 1936 (because of it release at the tail end of 1935), nominations for best editing and best picture. The film does well transferring through the decades, remaining a watchable period piece many years later, manifesting a yet another fine, lavish picture by MGM of the 1930s.

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