It was the best of times… You get the idea. 300+ pages of French Revolution drama by Dickens squished down to twenty minutes by the Vitagraph film company.
Silent movies drew from other elements of pop culture from the very start and while feature-length films were known in 1911, most American companies were still contented with one and two-reel pictures. (For the sake of argument, we’ll arbitrarily put a four-reel minimum on features.)
This caused a certain amount of awkwardness when adapting longer material to the screen. What do you do when you have 300 or 400 pages of wordy material, dozens of characters and only twenty minutes in which to do it?
The most common approach was a series of select vignettes that would form a sort of “good parts” version of the story without much connecting material intact. And then there was what Vitagraph attempted with A Tale of Two Cities: condense the story so that it remains coherent but nevertheless fits into the available runtime.
I bring this out early because there is potential for disappointment for fans of the source material but I can assure you that this was what the studio intended and what the audience expected. These early adaptations can be extremely rewarding due to their closer proximity to the original novel (a mere fifty years in this case) and the old school acting methods on display.
The story of A Tale of Two Cities is pretty well-known but a quick refresher:
The French Revolution is looming with ruthless aristocrats about to clash with the righteously angry lower classes. Lucie Manette (Florence Turner) discovers her father, Dr. Manette (Charles Kent), in the Bastille. Things get awkward when Lucie falls in love with Charles Darnay (Leo Delaney), heir to the man who locked Dr. Manette up in the first place.
And in the background is Englishman Sydney Carton (Maurice Costello, Drew Barrymore’s great-grandfather for those of you keeping score at home). Carton is in love with Lucie but steps aside in favor of Darnay when it is clear that she prefers him.
Naturally, the French Revolution is on the horizon and all the characters are caught up in the mayhem. I won’t issue any spoiler warnings because it’s pretty much common knowledge that Carton takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine and dies so that Lucie can be happy with the man she loves. It is a far, far better thing…
This brings me to a minor subject of interest for me. Adaptations of A Tale of Two Cities generally opt for two similar-looking actors playing Darnay and Carton with the bigger star playing Carton. However, the 1917 Fox adaptation opted for William Farnum to play both men with the help of special effects and doubles.
We know that the Vitagraph version opted for the two actor method but could they have had Costello play both if they wanted? It’s entirely possible as the 1909 Edison version of The Prince and the Pauper featured Cecil Spooner in both title roles, though I do not know if trick photography was employed in this case. Obviously, I am not saying that this is the earliest example, just that it is an example of a similar date, similar film and an American studio. It’s also worth noting that Vitagraph’s special effects department was among the most advanced in the United States, as Princess Nicotine (1909) proves.
(For the sake of simplicity, I am not considering films that reuse extras—The Great Train Robbery, for example—or films that have dual roles of a more metaphysical nature—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)
So, it was entirely possible for the studio to cast Costello in both parts but they didn’t. If I were him, I would have insisted. The simplified nature of the story leaves Carton with very little screentime and Darnay is the more active character. This leaves a lot of love scenes with Darnay and Lucie, and remember that Florence Turner was one of the biggest names on the Vitagraph roster at the time, and Carton pining from afar. Turner does fine, though there isn’t much to the role. (We have Chrises and in the early 1910s, our forebears had Florences: Turner, Lawrence and La Badie.)
Carton isn’t quite out of it enough for his final sacrifice to come out of nowhere but it’s touch and go for a bit. Costello is appealing and subtle but there just is surprisingly little of him considering the importance of his character and his popularity as an early film star. The grand finale at the guillotine seems rushed and the main attraction is an early appearance of Norma Talmadge as a fellow victim of the revolutionary regime.
The real standout for me was Charles Kent as Dr. Manette. There is a beautiful scene at the beginning of the film when he is reunited with his daughter in the Bastille and his slow recognition of her identity. It’s played slowly and with great delicacy, especially impressive considering Kent’s stage pedigree. (Stage stars did sometimes tend to play for the people in the cheap seats.)
But what about that French flavor? Can you truly feel Parisian in Brooklyn, New York? Well, considering the technology of the time and the resources of Vitagraph, it does a pretty good job. American studios did go on location (Kalem sent teams to Ireland, Egypt and the Holy Land around this time) but painted backgrounds were not seen as a dealbreaker at the time.
Vitagraph’s costume department was one of the best in the business and this film is no exception. The aristocrats have suitable flounces, the sans-culottes are, well, sans culottes and everyone else is in their best cravats. As with any costume film, this isn’t about perfect accuracy so much as a general mood and this film captures it very well.
And while the storming of the Bastille is not as impressive as the expensive 1917 Fox film there are nonetheless plenty of extras and they are enthusiastic for the blood of the aristocrats. (Italy’s ambitious megaproductions would soon inspire American filmmakers to supersize their own films.)
In my opinion, this 1911 film excels at small moments and I was particularly impressed by the tragic death of a child hit by a coach and the subsequent murder of the Duke D’Evremon (played by director William Humphrey, though some sources list Charles Kent as director). The child’s death is filmed simply but with brutal effectiveness. The tiny child darts along and is hidden by the extras and then the coach drives through. Her little body is lifted up and, to be honest, I very nearly lost my composure. Maybe it was the youth of the child, just a toddler, and maybe it was because she was so very good at playing dead but it’s one of the most heartbreaking versions of the scene I have yet viewed.
The murder is moody with a hand reaching through the blinds, approaching the sleeping duke, reaching into the canopy bed and the twitching hand of the victim tells us all we need to know. We’ve seen this sort of thing before but it is extremely well-handled.
All in all, this was a tidy and professional twenty minutes. Did it include every ingle character from the book? No. But it is a reasonably thorough adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities and showcases the best of Vitagraph circa 1911. Definitely worth a view.