“It’s a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done; it’s a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” — The last words of Sidney Carton (Ronald Colman) as he approaches the guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities (1935).
The problem with Ronald Colman (1891-1958) was that he made acting look too easy.
This British import to Hollywood became a star with virtually his first film, 1924’s The White Sister, and quickly established himself as a suave, handsome matinee idol of the first order.
His specialty, wrote one observer, was to play “sophisticated, thoughtful characters of integrity with enormous aplomb.” Colman could also swashbuckle expertly when necessary, but he was practically flawless as a romantic leading man.
In the 1930s Colman became more valuable than ever, since his rich, hypnotic speaking voice allowed him to make the leap to sound films while other less gifted silent stars lapsed into obscurity.
Colman made it look effortless. Some interpreted this as laziness.
One reviewer accused him of “getting away with polite murder and walking through his roles with an agreeable smile and a display of personal charm that was not precisely a substitute for acting.”
Colman’s own daughter described him as “always good, sometimes better than the film itself; one was rarely disappointed and as rarely surprised by his performances.”
But in 1935 Colman got the gig of a lifetime, one that was to change his public image. He was cast as Sidney Carton, the dissipated-yet-noble hero of M-G-M’s A Tale of Two Cities, a story of love set against the terrors of the French Revolution.
Colman’s performance is as impressive today as it was when first seen more than 70 years ago.
A dedicated reader of Dickens, Colman was said to have known the novel almost by heart. He had wanted for years to play Carton, a lawyer who goes to his death so that the woman he loves can be with the man she loves.
Colman was sure he was the perfect actor to bring the character to life.
M-G-M bigwig David O. Selznick obviously thought so, too. Eager to capitalize on the studio’s recent success of his Dickens adaptation of David Copperfield, the producer negotiated with 20th Century Fox for the Colman’s talents.
Even so, Selznick warned his staff: “There is the difficulty of getting him as anything but a rather gay, casual Colman – as he always has been.”
No need to worry. Under the direction of Jack Conway, Colman gave a career-changing performance.
His fellow actors realized how devoted Colman was to the project when he began showing up on the set even on days when he wasn’t in any scenes (previously that never happened). Without protest he trimmed off his trademark pencil moustache – this was one of only two movies in which he appeared clean shaven.
And every morning he returned to the set with dialogue suggestions, having spent the previous night comparing the screenplay to Dickens’ original words.
Ironically, Carlton enjoys relatively little screen time and doesn’t even show up until 25 minutes into the movie. But Colman so perfectly nailed the part that one leaves Two Cities convinced he’s in every scene.
It’s a performance of huge depth, subtlety and humanity. And Hollywood took notice.
“My great respect for Ronald Colman began when I saw him in The White Sister,” director Frank Capra wrote. “With his performance in A Tale of Two Cities, my respect matured into a love affair for a fine actor.”
Though Colman wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for A Tale of Two Cities (the film was nominated for picture and editing), he was vindicated a decade later when he picked up a best actor statuette for 1947’s A Double Life, in which he played a Shakespearean actor whose performance as Othello slowly pushes him into madness.
He wound up his long career in the new medium of television, appearing on the weekly dramatic shows Four Star Playhouse (1952-1953) and The Halls of Ivy (1954-1955), playing a different character every week.
Other films in the series “Not Just for Christmas: Charles Dickens at 200”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- February 6: Nicholas Nickleby (2002) Rated PG
- February 13: A Tale of Two Cities (1935) Not Rated
- February 20: David Copperfield (1935) Not Rated
- February 27: Great Expectations (1946) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.