Easily the best film version of Charles Dickens's classic novel (out of at least seven), A TALE OF TWO CITIES follows the turmoil and aftermath of the French Revolution. Sydney Carton (Colman) is a world-weary London barrister in love with Lucie Manette (Allan). She thinks of him only as a
friend, however, and marries Charles Darnay (Woods), a descendant of a noble Frenchman who is also Carton's look-alike. Darnay's uncle, the Marquis St. Evremonde (Rathbone), is a heartless tyrant who is killed at the Revolution's onset. As the nephew of the hated Marquis, Darnay is arrested in
Paris and sentenced to death. Lucie is frantic with worry over her husband, and Carton, devoted to Lucie but seeing no hope of happiness, goes to Paris, where he frees Darnay and takes his place in prison. His last words as he ascends the scaffold have become so identified with Colman that they
are almost impossible to say without slipping into his distinctive accent: "It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
This superb, lavish production features an MGM stock company playing every small role to perfection, and Colman gives one of the best performances of his life in a role he had long wanted to play. He captures Carton's intellectualism, cynicism, self-pity and nobility in equal measure, achieving a
richness of characterization that would have pleased Dickens himself. Equally memorable is Blanche Yurka as the sinister Mme. DeFarge. This is nastiness to rival Mercedes McCambridge's ripe, blistering work in JOHNNY GUITAR. And, as in that Nicholas Ray film, Yurka has her own Joan Crawford to
confront: the inimitable Edna May Oliver, representing the forces of virtue. Their final struggle is one of the highlights of the film. The film, has, in fact, many great moments, among the most beautiful of which is Carton's walk through the snow as the holiday carolers go by. The finale, as
Carton awaits death, is equally powerful and touching. In a small role as a seamstress also being executed, Isabel Jewell gets to pull off yet another marvelous dramatic vignette.
One of director Jack Conway's finest efforts, the film never suffers from a sense that the novel has been compressed or rushed. Moving, fresh and aware of its effects, this film stands as one of Hollywood's finest adaptations of a novel. Its huge and deserved success gave producer David O.
Selznick the freedom to walk away from MGM (and his father-in-law, Louis B. Mayer) and set up Selznick International Pictures. "Tis a far, far better thing" indeed.
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