Sunday, December 27, 2015

Telling a Tale of Two Cities

"It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done. It's a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known."

Sydney (Ronald Colman)

"A Tale of Two Cities," Charles Dickens' classic tale, has been brought to the big screen many times, including a few silent versions — but it is the first sound version, which premiered on this day in 1935, to which all subsequent efforts have been compared and found, to an extent, to be lacking.

Dickens' story about the French Revolution was published 156 years ago, and it still has relevance today. Plus, in all those years, it has gained a reputation for being Dickens' most loved novel — although, personally, I prefer "A Christmas Carol."

There is no denying, though, that it may have one of the best openings any book ever had.
"It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of light,
it was the season of darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair."

Charles Dickens
'A Tale of Two Cities' (1859)

Guess that pretty much covers it.

Of course, there are details, and "A Tale of Two Cities," both the movie and the book, tried to fill in the gaps with those details.

From the perspective of 80 years later, it is remarkable that Ronald Colman was cast in the role of Sydney Carton. It was reported that such motion picture luminaries as Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery and Leslie Howard were being considered for it.

Playing the role was the fulfillment of a long–held wish for Colman, who was willing to shave off his trademark mustache for the part. It was a sacrifice he was never willing to make again.

But Colman took the part with the understanding that he would not be expected to play the role of Charles Darnay as well. Because the resemblance between the characters of Sydney and Charles plays such an important role in the plot, the same actor has played both parts, whether on the stage or the big screen. But Colman was only interested in playing Sydney so Canadian–born actor Donald Woods was cast as Charles.

I have to admit that I wasn't sure about that part of the casting when I first saw the movie — and I still have my doubts. After all, the similarities between Sydney and Charles were not confined to their physical resemblance. It also included their shared passion for the same woman, Lucie (Elizabeth Allan).

Than, at the end, in the dramatic scene with the guillotine, Colman was able to deliver that famous line: "It's a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done."

It isn't quite at the same level as the famous speech from "Macbeth""Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ..." — but it's close.

Colman wasn't the only first–rate actor in the production, but his name is remembered while the others are not — for the most part. From time to time, you encounter someone who does know the names of Reginald Owen or Edna May Oliver — and I suppose most folks will remember the name of Basil Rathbone, if only because it is such a memorable name and not because they actually remember one of his performances.

But many in the cast were among the most respected actors and actresses of their day.

None, however, and that includes Colman, received an Oscar nomination. In fact, the movie received only two nominations — for Best Picture and Best Film Editing. It lost both.