The 1935 MGM production of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities was the fourth screen adaptation of the novel and the first to be made with sound. It followed the similarly grand David Copperfield, which had been released earlier in the year. While the film explores the drama of the French Revolution on a large scale, it is almost intimate in the way it explores love and sacrifice. I recently watched it on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.
The casting of the film for the most part is perfect because it is utterly unsurprising. Basil Rathbone settles cozily into his role as an icy, cruel Marquis, Edna Mae Oliver ties her bonnet and plays the perfect protective servant, and Elizabeth Allen performs with the reserve of someone who knows she is meant to be decorative.
Ronald Colman on the other hand is a revelation. Throughout most of his career, he tended to play dashing, romantic, and plainly heroic characters. It’s fascinating to see him play a more downbeat and morally complex character. Much like Cary Grant, he could skate by on his charm and handsome face, but he had more to offer as an actor. This was a role he had long wanted and studied for and his total commitment shows in the performance.
A Tale of Two Cities is a busy film. You get the feeling of a bag being quickly packed, stuffed full of important things that can’t be missed though there really isn’t enough room for everything. It’s a familiar issue for classic adaptations and especially the character-filled stories of Dickens.
Still, it is an effective production and grand in a way only MGM could achieve at the time. While the crowds and clatter can be invigorating, the best moments focus on Colman and his personal response to public chaos. When in the midst of coldly efficient violence and cruelty he calmly meets his fate, it is immensely touching. In fact, it’s one of the great moments of classic cinema.
Special features on the disc include a theatrical trailer, the cartoons Hey, Hey Fever and Honeyland, audio of a radio adaptation of the story also starring Colman, and the amusing stereoscopic demonstration short Audioscopicks, which was nominated for an Oscar.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection .
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