The best adaptation of Charles Dickens’ French Revolution story was David O Selznick’s final M-G-M production before he started up his own company. Big & handsome, it moves along with unimaginative efficiency under Jack Conway’s hand (Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur did imposing work on the big action sequences), but there’s little of the special Dickensian flavor that Selznick & George Cukor got out of DAVID COPPERFIELD earlier that year.* But 23 minutes in, Ronald Colman shows up as Sydney Carton, and any shortcomings pale next to his inspired characterization. The wistful, fading vocal cadence; the ruined sense of purpose reflected in his ‘sadder-but-wiser’ eyes; the glamor of a failed romantic who finds redemption in one glorious gesture; all realized without physical strain or overstatement. Colman seems timeless and intriguingly modern, especially amid the trappings of mid-30s studio formulae. Yet, how can even adventurous filmgoers get to know the man? Silent beauties like STELLA DALLAS/’25 and BEAU GESTE/’26 may have limited takers, but what’s holding back mainstream releases like IF I WERE KING/’38 and THE LIGHT THAT FAILED/’39?
*Selznick’s three other films from 1935 starred Helen Hayes, Jean Harlow & Greta Garbo!