New This Week
Warner Archive has released Blu-ray upgrades of two of my all-time favorite films.
I first saw 1935’s A Tale of Two Cities and 1936’s San Francisco on TV but was later able to see them on the big screen in revival houses that were precursors to home video through the 1970s.
It’s not just modern epics that look better on large theatre screens, the old epics also looked better, especially these two with their larger-than-life special-effects scenes – the storming of the Bastille in A Tale of Two Cities and the earthquake and resultant fires that destroyed large parts of the city in San Francisco. The high-definition Blu-rays do full justice to these two 1936 Oscar nominees.
A Tale of Two Cities was released in New York and other cities in December 1935 but held back until early in 1936 in Los Angeles so that it wouldn’t have to compete against MGM’s other high profile Dickens adaptation, David Copperfield, at the 1935 Academy Awards. George Cukor’s definitive version of David Copperfield lost anyway to another MGM epic, Frank Lloyd’s version of Mutiny on the Bounty.
Jack Conway’s film of A Tale of Two Cities was the fourth film version of Charles Dickens’ novel about the French Revolution. It wouldn’t be the last, but like so many MGM productions of classics of the era, it remains the best.
No version of A Tale of Two Cities would be worth much if it didn’t open and close with Dickens’ famous lines, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” at the start and “it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done” at the end, and no version delivers them better.
Until this version, it had been a practice to use the same actor to play the protagonists Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, the look-alike husband of Lucy, the woman he loves, but Ronald Colman only wanted to play Carton and so he did, with Donald Woods stepping in to play Darnay. Elizabeth Allen plays Lucy.
The standouts in the cast, aside from Colman, are Basil Rathbone as the despicable Marquis St. Evrémonde, Blanche Yurka as the treacherous Madame De Farge, and Edna May Oliver as Miss Pross, Lucy’s faithful companion.
Audiences still get chills from the performances of Rathbone and Yurka. Rathbone never exuded more despotic evil than when after running over a peasant boy with his carriage, he lectures the crowd on keeping their children away as they may injure one of his horses. Yurka grabbed them with her sneers and snarls as she added one name after another to her list of relatives of the aristocracy who must be brought to the guillotine.