This is the one starring Ronald Colman as Sydney Carton. I think it may be my all time favorite Dickens adaptation, to this point, though I have not seen all that many. The other contenders among those I have are good--the 1948 David Lean Oliver Twist that I wrote about a few months ago, both the 1951 and 1984 Christmas Carols, and the 6-8 hour 1988 television adaption of Little Dorrit. I found that this one gave me the most unabashed enjoyment however.
I read the book when I was in high school, though I haven't taken it up since then. I have always enjoyed all of the most iconic Dickens books, even though I doubt I understood much of what was going on in them as a teenager. I realize now that for the most part in my life I have read for companionship rather than information or insight, and Dickens is of course one of the all time best authors for this. Old movies offered something of this sense of camaraderie as well, so that it seems the work of Dickens would have been especially well-suited to 1930s and early 40s Hollywood. They shared, with regard to narrative, many of the same satisfying predilections and excellences, and A Tale of Two Cities was at the forefront of all of Dickens's books in producing potent melodramatic images that old time filmmakers could use with a relish completely free of any sense of shame--the guillotine, aristocrats whose arrogance would permit allow of no inhibitions, fanatical revolutionaries devoted to making sure the 0.1 percent got their comeuppance, the great wild spectacles such as the storming of the Bastille and the revolutionary courts. I don't remember whether the extremely sentimental episode of Sydney Carton's Christmas Eve was in the book, but it was one of the most charming things I have experienced in these last months.
Some notes on the principals:
Over the top though it may have been, the performance of Blanche Yurka as Madame Defarge was striking, and deserves to be remembered.
The great Basil Rathbone appears as the deliciously vicious and arrogant Marquis de St Evremonde, unfortunately only for a couple of scenes. Evidently he specialized in playing supercilious aristocratic types. His Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood was so pointedly and doggedly humorless that his mere presence on the screen caused one to titter in delight, and something of that carries over to here. I like this guy.
I don't think I have ever seen Ronald Colman before, who was the star of the film, and was, like John Garfield, a quite major star of the time whose fame has faded enough that I made it into my forties largely unaware of him. He was obviously affable as Sidney Carton--otherwise I would not likely have been able to enjoy the movie. I'll have to see if he turns up again. Most of these guys I need to see two or three times before I begin to appreciate them.
The director was Jack Conway, who is not usually counted among the giants of his profession, though he was a directing machine at MGM from the 1910s through the 40s. The only other movie of his I have ever heard of is A Yank at Oxford, and maybe I am even confusing that with a book. A Tale of Two Cities is his most famous movie. And it is really good.
The screenplay was co-written by S. N. Behrman, who had a long, prolific career as a screenwriter, playwright and New Yorker stalwart in the era when E. B. White, Salinger, Nabokov, Cheever, Updike, et al, were frequent contributors to that magazine. Everybody is conscious of all the inferior writers who get forgotten over time, but how about all of the pretty good writers, who were right in the thick of the scene in their time, and were respected and commissioned to do real work by other serious people? There are a lot of strata in society and the world of work, and I sometimes wonder if one of the reasons I and so many other people have difficulty getting on with careers and such when we are young is because we are so unaware of any work being valuable or offering the possibility of a pleasurable life besides...
Time is up. I would like to finish that thought sometime. It has something to do with the limited sense of what is valuable or possible, or even of what work or a career really is, or involves, in a healthily developed person. But I probably won't get back to a computer for several days...