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. — Last sentence of 1935 and Dickens’s ATOTC
Dear friends and readers,
When I was 12 or 13 my screen idol was Ronald Colman. I remember my love for him best in A Tale of Two Cities and Talk of the Town, which in the way Million Dollar Movie (Channel 9, local NYC metromedia station) operated in the 1950s I saw every night for 5 nights and all day Saturday and Sunday each time they were scheduled. At the time I used to tell anyone who would listen (not many, probably just my father) that were I to tell any of the girls in school my heart-throb was Ronald Colman, they’d stare and ask me, who’s he? Girls my age then loved Frankie Avalon, Frankie Valli (The Four Seasons). Looking back I guess I never told anyone lest I appall anyone.
Not that Colman was not — as well as self-contained, strongly ethical, seeking personal fulfillment, sad, wistful, noble, deeply disillusioned, looking away ironically, quizzically, averted eyes — beautiful in the 1920s in the way of matinee idols. This may still be seen in the 1935 film when he talks with Lucie in the garden in a scene which in the novel may correspond to Dickens’s idealization of his relationship with Ellen Ternan (for whom he had brutally ejected his wife just as he was writing A Tale of Two Cities):
Around that time I managed to watch the 1937 Prisoner of Zenda and just loved Colman’s gay and bitter ironies and thought him so alluring as a swashbuckler against Barrymore, Jr (I’ve not forgotten their thrilling sword fight down a turning stairway over a cliff uttering with many a bon mot at one another);; I saw a much mangled censured version of Lost Horizon which I also read (Hilton’s novel), and then decades (when I was in my later 50s) later replaced some years ago in my memory by reading buying a re-digitalized, newly restored (to an original version not seen in the theaters) DVD (complete with commentary and features) at the same time as I added to my repertoire Random Harvest (1942 MGM, also based on a Hilton novel); his very last performance of Othello in a 1948 Universal adaption of Othello, as actor and character, A Double Life. There is a worth while analysis of Random Harvest in Brian McFarland’s Novel into Film:
and of Under Two Flags (with Claudette Colbert and which I’ve never seen) by Victoria Szabo (“Love on the Algerian Sands: Reviving Cigarette”) in Women at the Movies, Adapting Classic Women’s Fiction to Film, ed. Barbara Tepa Lupack:
I’ve even managed a totally silent DVD of the 1925 Romola where Colman played a tenderly brother-type (not in the novel) to the heroine.
The trouble is I know these few films do not begin to cover those Colman acted in. While it’s true he sued Samuel Goldwyn for insinuating he was a depressive alcoholic and was neither (at all), I’ve learned that the suit helped his career. He was being given shallow silly parts, cliched roles, and he was quickly scooped up by MGM and Fox and went on to do some of his best work in the later 1930s. The books to read and peruse are the somewhat hagiographic R. Dixon Smith, RC: Gentleman of the Cinema, and the encyclopedic Ronald Colman: A Bio-bibliography by Sam Frank.
Still, after watching the 1935 A Tale of Two Cities, and liking it better each time (though it is anti- the French revolution) I put this still from the film on the wall. It is Colman as Carton standing outside the Darnay home looking in (a sort of Stella Dallas):
I’ve now bought myself a re-digitalized 1938 Paramount The Light that Failed (Colman as Rupert Kipling’s failed painter) and await the DVD from Amazon eagerly).
I watched the 1935 MGM ATOTC as well as the 1958 Rank ATOTC — with Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton and the 1989 mini-series ATOTC, with James Wilbry as Carton, scripted by Arthur Hopcroft (who scripted the 1988 BBC Bleak House) because with a few people on Inimitable-Boz, I’d been reading & discussing Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities
I had last read it in my senior year in high school so that’s 41 years ago, and yet as I read parts I remembered them. This time I’m finding it a seriously flawed book. Again and again there are long astonishingly insightful and indeed prophetic passages on endless unjust imprisonment; state-fomented paranoia; torture and humiliation of people then murdered by the state, and then psychotic madness of people do tortured (Dr Manette’s fits); an understandable crazed need for revenge after a life of ravaging injustice (the knit, knit, knit chapter) — but then these are not rooted in any sound analysis of the history of the era, or human nature as it is, but instead we get a melodramatic story. We see a man try to change his identity because he rightly cannot bear the one imposed on him (Darnay), but we are given no reason for, no understanding of Carton’s depression, alcoholism, despair. He is a character without a past, no context. How did Carton end up Striver’s jackal. We are not told.
But then a history of the time would emphasize these new principles and from what I’ve read of Carlyle he certainly does. Carlyle’s French Revolution (a possible source) is very hard reading — at least I find it opaque. The style is madness.
The question would be, how does a novelist dramatize these ideas? what plot-situation or dramatic scenes can convey them? Hugo resorts to outright chapters of idea- and history. I like these very much and think he carries it off splendidly, but now English translations of his Les Miserables actually put these in the back of the book, as if they were appendices and it’s hard to figure out where they came. One forgets they are there so forgets to read them.
Dickens’s story tends to criminalize the people making the revolution – as they are the perpetrators of the false trials of Darnay. They are presented as crazed and only a couple of anecdotes and stories produced to justify why they are seething with fear and rage. Darnay is Carton’s double and he figures a modern alienation: he does not want the identity imposed on him; he attempts in good faith to build a new life, but finds he cannot escape the past, his roots, his property even, and those around him will not let him escape what his uncle did before him.
As to the films: I watched the 1935 ATOTC twice and the 1958 ATOTC with Dirk Bogarde in the leading role, it shone. The 1958 film is a close imitation of the 1935, step-by-step influenced, but the changes were often deviations into something less believable and fudged (meaning the politics of the film). Especially the characters of Sydney Carton and Miss Manette. 1958: Dirk Bogarde was directed to play the part of an alcoholic who has given up on life without quite saying why; the typology really feel into a ne’er-do-well Skimpole (from Bleak House). Since I’ve seen Bogarde playing greatly (Night Porter, The Servant) I know he was directed into this. Elizabeth Allen believed in her role in 1935 and had an intense sort of femaleness; poor Dorothy Tutin (1958) was embarrassing as Lucie Manette; she didn’t believe the character for a moment and was told to make her voice high.
Colman really played the part of a depressed man, disillusioned by all he’s seen. gayly, poignantly ironic — he was typed this way in other films (Lost Horizon) and as I wrote at one point in his career sued the studio for insinuating this was his real character in life and broke his contract (he had some courage and integrity). The actors in 1935 were closer to Dickens’s world and were better at the grotesques, especially I admit Edna May Oliver and the woman enacting Madame Defarge as well as Basil Rathbone as her evil nemesis who destroyed her family.
From the totally wild self-abjecton and tender chapter of Sydney declaring his love, a chapter undermining masculinity, i 1935 they carried it off, especially since in the 1935 movie it was followed up by slight montages and vignettes suggesting in fact their relationship deepened and was part of their mutual lives for a few years to come. The dialogue reappears even in 1989. Hopcraft just didn’t drop it.
Not that there were no moments in 1958: Leo McKern was the lawyer attacking Darnay, and Donald Pleasance a young Barsad, the spy. Both films are hurt by the excess of sentiment and filming at studio lots. The 1958 could have been more political; it was eschewed, but the individual portraits hit home: the 1958 Mr Manette put me in mind of the prisoners now starving to death in Gitmo, there for more than 11 years, many innocent of any crime but being in Pakistan and poor and known to be leftist in sympathy during the time the bribing scheme was on. The prisons too — they brought to mind our own huge prison industry and people put away in solitary confinement for years and years.
1989: Although the film with James Wilby as Carton and Serena Gordon as Lucie was probably more effective for a modern audience, it was inferior to the 1935. Again it hinges on Carton: John Wilby actually played it as something like a gothic wanderer: he was filmed as a Byronic type. Unlike both Colman and Bogarde, the alcoholism was marginalized.
The real problem with this character seems to be is he’s absolutely socially unacceptable to a wide audience and only the 1935 group had the nerve and only Colman the ability to play it.
It’s as if with each new version the film-makers departed more from the first try by getting rid of every good touch in the ’35 movie: one of my favorites is when (1935 movie) the people are jeering at Colman and others in the cart, and laughing at him especially, the actor says, “don’t laugh, and some words about the nature of the person or what’s happening there the man doesn’t understand.” Coming from Barsad that’s one of the finest moments in all 3 films.
Hopcraft was the writer and he wrote the 1988 Bleak House and that was excellent yet here he falls into the trap of having the actors do these fake semi-Frenchified voices and behaving in this stilted manner to indicate their Frenchness. It reminds me of the way Arab people are often represented on TV, as “different.” (A rare one not to do this was Prime Suspect). The harm to the movie was incessant. Hopcraft had moderned Esther Summerson by giving her some real characteristics of anger and resentment, and also pro-activity; nothing like that here, though unlike either previous Lucie at the film’s end Serena Gordon seems to realize she has done Carton in and at least looks some regret and memory of him.
I expect the movie-producers were afraid of offending as this is a book that’s well known. I feel the book itself got in the way. OTOH, no more of this stigmatizing of the “mob” as in 1935 and 1958, more incidents were invented to make us understand the rage and fear of the people in charge of the terror, not a lot but something.
The 1958 and 1989 film were afraid of imitating the 1935 and this too got in the way. Bogarde did have a consistent fulfilling final moment: in accordance with his character, he is not eager to go, rather passively letting things happen than (as with Colman) reaching out (to the seamstress).
In 1989 we don’t see Wilby mount the scaffold, and the film ends with the carriage trundling away and the over-voice is the Christian “I am the Resurrection and the Light.” While that’s in the novel, it’s not the ending, and to put it last is to make Christian what is a part suicide scene: Carton seeking oblivion, peace, not redemption.
No one is redeemed in Dickens’s novel; it’s deeply pessimistic and as Colman mounts the scaffold (see the still prefacing this blog) we know the reason we do not hear catcalls is Miss Pross has murdered Madame Defarge. Jerry Cruncher, like Dickens’s Flintwich, beats his wife mercilessly, is the Resurrectionist of the book and bleakly parodies all the deaths. He conducts parody of the corpses of the ancien regime, and the corpses of the reign of (more intense because more crowded) few years to come. What is it Jay Gatsby says to Nick Carraway at the close of The Great Gatsby? “Tell me, old sport — what are we going to do with all these corpses on our hands?”
The ancien regime mutilated them. Jerry digs them up and sells them. Resurrectionist — a dark parody of I am the resurrection and the life, no? The US throws them out to sea.
I know I’ve not written much since May 2nd (Disability Studies). I’ve been both busy and have lacked the heart to write much since My busyness has included finishing two powerful long novels by Trollope (He Knew He Was Right and The Way We Live Now read alternatively) and then carrying on reading three more remarkable novels by Anthony Trollope, the last very long (Framley Parsonage, The American Senator, Phineas Redux). I’m doing some fascinating reading about the use of maps, about the presentation of the city through plot-designs and action which emerge from how space is mapped in these books and hope to write about this soon.
I return to Colman to say to equate him with the “old-fashioned silver-screen gentleman” is to underestimate him. He had gone to a boarding school and started a good education, but was forced to leave school at 16 when his father died suddenly; while working at an office job, he turned to dramatics as an amateur by the time he was 22. For 18th century lovers, he is said to have been able to trace his family tree directly back to George Colman. He fought in World War One, a Ypres, and was very badly wounded. He limped all his life afterward and part of his acting was to disguise this.