A Tale of Two Cities
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Tale of Two Cities, A (1935) (DVD)
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Charles Dickens' tale of love and tumult during the French Revolution comes to the screen in a sumptuous film version by the producer famed for nurturing sprawling literary works: David O. Selznick (David Copperfield, Anna Karenina, Gone with the Wind). Ronald Colman (The Prisoner of Zenda) stars as Sydney Carton ? sardonic, dissolute, a wastrel...and destined to redeem himself in an act of courageous sacrifice. "It's a far, far better thing I do than I've ever done," Carton muses at that defining moment. This is far, far better filmmaking, too: a Golden Era marvel of uncanny performances top to bottom, eye-filling crowd scenes (the storming of the Bastille, thronged courtrooms, an eerie festival of public execution) and lasting emotional power. Revolution is in the air!]]>
Ronald Colman isn't even on screen for the most famous lines of his career ("It's a far, far better thing I do..."), but such is the power of the moment and the performance that everybody remembers it anyway. A Tale of Two Cities was the follow-up for producer David O. Selznick and high-class studio MGM to their hit adaptation of another Charles Dickens novel, David Copperfield. While not scaling the heights of that impeccable production, Tale gives a tight, straightforward reading of Dickens' story of the French Revolution. Colman plays the drunken romantic Sydney Carton, who pines for the lovely Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) even though she marries former French aristocrat Charles Darnay (Donald Woods). Meanwhile, back in Paris, the Revolution erupts, and Darnay is fated for the guillotine... perhaps. Along with Colman's expert study in melancholy, the film is crammed with fragrant supporting players, such as Edna May Oliver, Reginald Owen, and the uniquely unsettling Blanche Yurka as the endlessly-knitting Madame Defarge. In a handful of scenes, Basil Rathbone makes the Marquis de Evremonde the quintessence of clueless privilege ("With what I get from these peasants, I can hardly afford to pay my perfume bill"). Journeyman director Jack Conway doesn't have the lovely touch that George Cukor brought to Copperfield, but Selznick hired him because "the picture is melodrama, it must have pace and it must 'pack a wallop.'" It still does. Footnote to film history: Selznick's assistant, Val Lewton, supervised the Revolutionary montage, and hired director Jacques Tourneur for the job; later they would team up on Lewton's great run of B-horror pictures, beginning with Cat People. --Robert Horton
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