A newspaper man, his ignored fiancée, and his former employee, a down on his luck reporter, hatch an elaborate scheme to turn a false news story into the truth in order to prevent a high-society woman from suing for libel.
Alas, an aristocrat and a barrister on the same plateau. This is the story of a revolution, a revolution that occurred in France known as the Reign of Terror. The barrister, the town alcoholic and man of disrepute, is in love with a beautiful woman, who marries the aristocrat and bears a beautiful baby girl. The baby girl is infatuated with the barrister, and he her because of her mother. The ultimate sacrifice occurs and a man's soul goes forward.
Close up of a paper reporting arrest of Charles Darnay shows a Reuters report. The action takes place in 1785...Paul Reuter was born in 1816 and did not set up his eponymous news agency until 1850. See more »
Most of the fiction of Charles Dickens is set firmly in the 19th Century, from roughly 1820 to 1865 or so. Twice, however, he essayed the historical novel. It was really not his specialty. His rival, William Thackeray, was into the past and constructed several notable tales of 18th Century life ("Henry Esmond", "The Virginians", "Denis Duval", "Barry Lyndon", "Catherine"). Compared to this Dickens only squeezed out "Barnaby Rudge" and "A Tale of Two Cities". The first one (published in 1842) was interesting, as it dealt with a serious riot that almost overthrew the monarchy in 1780. But few people read it. Ironically enough, the following year Dickens wrote a novella of 100 pages which became one of his perennial favorite works - "A Christmas Carol". But the second novel (published in 1859 - as Dickens reached the heights of his literary powers) became one of the greatest historical novels ever written. It also has the best introductory paragraph of any of his novels (see the "summary" line to see the opening of it).
He had prepared on the background to "A Tale of Two Cities" by reading Thomas Carlyle's classic "History of the French Revolution". It might have been better if he had read some of the French historians, for Carlyle was a great colorist (he created the "green-eyed" monster image of Maximillian Robespierre that most British and Americans still adhere to), but he saw the Revolution from an ultra-conservative view. It colors Dickens' version, where nothing good seems to come from the French revolutionaries. In his essay on Dickens, George Orwell says that his constant image of carts filled of guillotine victims made the very word "tumbril" sinister. It did. By all means read this novel, and see this film, but don't base your view of that historical event on the novel or film.
The story follows the events of the Manette and St. Evremonde families and their friends (particularly Sidney Carton, a barrister) in England and France, as well as the growing revolutionary spirit in France that is symbolized by the Defarges from 1780 to 1793. Dickens is basically claiming that the cruelties of the ancien regime (represented by the old Marquis St. Evremond) will end by creating new cruelties and new masters now from the lower classes itself. Monsieur Defarges is somewhat more sympathetic to some people (after Charles is condemned to death by a revolutionary tribunal he sees no reason to continue going after the others), but Madame Defarges, remembering the sufferings of her own family, is willing to kill anybody connected to the aristocrats (including the Englishwoman Miss Pross). When one reads the full final speech of Sidney in the novel he foresees that the new leaders are doomed to be eaten up by the guillotine as well (including Defarges).
Much of the five hundred page novel (one of Dickens shortest novels - which helps it's narrative flow) is cut in the film, but the main points are kept. Possibly the most important cut deals with a minor character, Serjeant Stryver - he is Sidney's boss, and uses Sidney's brilliance to win his cases. He actually is a rival for Lucy Manette's hand in the novel, but this is not in the film. Reginald Owen did well in the part, but it would have been hard to see him as a potential lover (especially as Sidney is played by Ronald Colman, or Darnay by Douglas Woods).
The cast was an excellent one, giving Colman, Woods, Rathbone, Oliver, Yurka, Warner, Walthall, and Catlett exceptionally good moments to shine. Witness Rathbone dismissing the murmurs of the intelligentsia (although he finds Voltaire amusing). Witness Yurka's testimony at Darnay's trial. See Catlett's final moments, watching the last tumbrel of guillotine victims going to their doom, and calming down two men who are shouting with glee (very subtly done, and unusual for Catlett - usually a comic actor). Whether Sidney Carton is Colman's greatest performance is questionable (his mad actor in "A Double Life" is better, as is his George Apley and Dick Heldar), but it is a signature part. To this day he's imitated saying, "It is a far, far better thing I do...." No quote for the other roles is submitted by budding Rich Littles among us.
Such an excellent film owes it's production to one man: David O. Selznick, it's producer. A man who loved literature, Selznick made "A Tale of Two Cities" as one of a series of literary based films (with "David Copperfield", and "Little Lord Fauntleroy") that were uniformly excellent, and culminated in "Gone With The Wind". "A Tale of Two Cities" is not as long as "Gone With The Wind", but shows the same taste and craftsmanship that made the latter film a great one too.
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