It was the best of times… to make a Dickens adaptation! Movies were getting ever bigger in the 1910s and Fox decided to stage its own version of this literary classic about the French Revolution and far, far better things.
Director Frank Lloyd is sometimes damned by faint praise; “unpretentious” and “technically skilled” don’t exactly make him sound like a master of his craft. I feel that’s a bit unfair as he was one of the best costume drama directors in the business during the silent and classic film era. If you think that’s easy, just take a look at the number of directors swallowed whole by gilded sets, petticoats and plumes.
Lloyd’s great strength was understatement. He didn’t meander on loving shots of elaborate sets, sailing ships and casts of thousands. He didn’t throw in personal flourishes that would distract the audience. He was all about telling the story and bless him for it. (I’m a horrible philistine and the auteur theory makes me roll my eyes. I am an advocate for the elegance of an invisible directorial hand.)
You may have seen the 1924 version of The Sea Hawk (if you haven’t, see it at once, it’s splendid) and most classic film buffs can do a plausible impression of Charles Laughton in 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty. Lloyd was at his best with nautical stuff, no doubt about it, but he did just fine with powdered wigs and frock coats when the occasion called for it.
The occasion called when Lloyd was selected to direct Fox’s fancy new version of A Tale of Two Cities. He had only been directing for three years and had been making features for one, so this was quite the opportunity and Lloyd recognized it. Directors had to fight tooth and nail to be assigned “big” pictures and Frank Lloyd meant to make to most of his shot at the majors.
The story is, of course, based on the novel by Charles Dickens. It is, of course, long and crammed to the gills with characters and incidents and includes one of the most legendary opening lines in the history of English literature:
Oh, they left that out? Um, okay.
Anyway, the story focuses on Charles Darnay (William Farnum), a French nobleman living in England. His family back in France is pretty much the Revolution started as they ravish peasants, imprison their enemies and run over children with their carriages. Darnay has renounced them and is romancing Lucie Manette (Jewel Carmen), whose father has been imprisoned in the Bastille.
When Darnay runs into a spot of legal trouble, he is introduced to Sydney Carton (Farnum again). Carton uses his resemblance to Darnay to resolve his legal problems and then just sort of hangs around because he is in love with Lucie. Naturally, things go belly-up in France, Charles finds himself threatened with the guillotine thanks to Madame Defarge (Rosita Marstini), a vengeful figure from everybody’s past who encodes her enemies list into her knitting.
Well, it’s up to Carton to once again use his resemblance to Darnay to save the day, this time at a far greater cost to himself. And his final words are among the most legendary in the history of English literature:
Okay, so we’re one for two, movie.
There’s a lot more to it, of course, but I think most people will have at least a passing familiarity with the story or at least the Ronald Colman movie.
I’ve been a French Revolution buff since the fifth grade, when my teacher showed the class all her research on the topic. (She had just made a trip to Paris for further study.) We were all decidedly on the side of the sans-culottes, especially after we saw a comparison of the aristocratic diet and lifestyle vs. that of the peasants. We also started to read an abridged edition of A Tale of Two Cities but then my family moved and I never got to finish the book with the rest of my class, which irritated me greatly. (“Mom, I’m trying to become a revolutionary here!”)
I had to complete the book on my own (unabridged, thank you very much) and I continued to be interested in the general era. (I remain wary of the aristocracy, despite the best efforts of Baroness Orczy.) So, obviously, this movie is very much in my wheelhouse.
Without a doubt, the star of this film is the gigantic replica of Paris and the Bastille. Frank Lloyd stages a storming and he does the revolutionaries proud. We get smashed doors, scaled walls and officers thrown into the moat. Lloyd is neither timid of his sets, nor does he feel the need to send us on a guided tour. Instead, he approaches them with confidence and never loses the drama and action of the scene. Applause all around!
In interviews given at the time of the film’s release, Frank Lloyd comes across as humble and sincere, two qualities most assuredly not associated with film directors. He felt that it was his duty to place himself below Dickens and to try to make a film that interpreted the great author’s work as faithfully as possible. Of course, needless to say, any motion picture adaptation of Dickens will require nips and tucks in order to fit the famously verbose author’s stories into the length of a feature.
I won’t be doing a full “did it follow the book?” review because I simply haven’t been in a Dickens re-read mode but there are certain rules that hold true for most of his works. The good girl love interests are boring (Bella Wilfer for the win!), the best characters are the craziest and they often die, you can judge a character by his or her name, etc. I do confess that I prefer the marginally less-famous works of Dickens (Our Mutual Friend, Nicholas Nickleby) to the Big Hits (Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities).
As I said, trimming was needed but the film gets the general plot of the book, doesn’t add much frippery and keeps the downer ending. (No actor would ever allow his “Far, far better” speech to be taken away!) All in all, a successful adaptation that should help you cheat in English class.
And now for the cast. It has been decreed that every generation of American moviegoers must have some handsome brothers to swoon over and in the 1910s, that role was filled by the Farnums, William and Dustin. (The third brother, Marshall, passed away in 1917.) Both brothers specialized in westerns but were more than ready to don powdered wigs when the occasion called for it.
William, our Farnum for the evening, is more interesting as Sydney than he is as Charles but that’s not really surprising. It’s far more amusing to play a curmudgeon than a noble loverboy. To be honest, Sydney is the only character in the film who registers on a human level for me.
I do think that the film missed an opportunity in having William Farnum play both roles. He and his brother Dustin had an unusually strong family resemblance and it would have been far more interesting to cast the brothers as the leads. I understand that actors love dual roles but Charles and Sydney weren’t twins, just doppelgangers and it might have given Charles more life if whoever played him was focused on him alone.
Double exposure was a common trick in movies in 1917 but the double William Farnum scenes are rather well-done and Farnum was properly praised for declining to use globs of makeup to differentiate Darnay from Carton, so the casting was not a total loss.
Jewel Carmen is given more to do here than giggle or scream (as she was obliged to do in Flirting with Fate and The Bat) but that doesn’t make Lucie a particularly interesting character. Give me Madame Defarge or Miss Pross, Lucie’s protective nurse, any day of the week.
Critical response was universally positive, something that seemed to take the critics themselves by surprise. Photoplay’s Julian Johnson stated accurately, if a bit brutally, that the picture’s success could hardly have been predicted. “As big plays most often do, it came surprisingly as a shot from a dark doorway. Lloyd was assuredly of no special eminence; William Farnum has achieved celebrity and a fortune not as an actor of characters but as a purveyor of William Farnum; Fox is an industrious wholesaler of teary melodramas and vampires.”
Owch! Though Johnson does make up for all of this by gushing over performances and production values.
Motography’s George W. Graves stated that the tension was so strong that he experienced “post-movie play relief” once the suspense was over. Peter Milne, writing for Motion Picture News, described Lloyd’s mob scenes as masterly and praised all the performances, particularly Farnum’s Sydney Carton. In short, Fox had a critical darling on its hands.
I have to confess that I was less enthused about the picture. The cinematography, mob scenes and atmosphere are all excellent but a large portion of the film takes place in England and Lloyd seems unable to bring the same zip to these scenes that he did to the French ones. Admittedly, this is asking a lot because English drawing rooms and courts, while most fascinating in BBC dramas, are never going to compete with France on the brink of revolt. Still, the change in tone does induce a bit of whiplash.
The characters are also a bit remote and “costume film” if you take my meaning. There is much noble posing and fainting and whatnot but I was looking for more of the human factor, which Lloyd would find with more directing experience. A more mature Lloyd would knock historical fact and fiction out of the park in The Sea Hawk and Mutiny on the Bounty.
A Tale of Two Cities is a gorgeous epic that suffers from a bit of remoteness but still manages to tell a dynamic story. It’s not exactly the masterpiece that 1917 critics declared it to be but it’s quite a decent adaptation. English lit nerds and French Revolution buffs should find plenty to love.
Where can I see it?
I have the version released on DVD by Grapevine. It also includes the 1911 version of the film with Maurice Costello as Sydney and Leo Delaney as Darnay.
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