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Only Way, The (1925)


Main image of Only Way, The (1925)
35mm, 1,075 ft, black & white, silent
DirectorHerbert Wilcox
Production CompanyNational Talkies
 Herbert Wilcox Productions
Original NovelCharles Dickens
Original Stage PlayFreeman Wills
Photography byClaude McDonnell

Cast: John Martin-Harvey (Sidney Carton); Ben Webster (Marquis St Evremond); Jean Jay (Jean Defarge); Mary Brough (Miss Pross); Clarence Burton (Jacques Defarge); J. Fisher White (Dr Manette)

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In exile from revolutionary France, virtuous aristocrat Charles Darnay is pursued by the determined and vengeful Defarge. His fate falls into the hands of his near double, Sydney Carton, a brilliant but jaded lawyer who loves Darnay's wife and sees the chance of redeeming his wasted life.

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The final major Dickens adaptation of the silent era is The Only Way, a lavish adaptation of the popular stage play of the same name, itself a rather free adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities. Produced and directed by the ambitious Herbert Wilcox, ever in pursuit of prestige British products that would appeal to an international market, the film was a vehicle for the great actor-manager John Martin Harvey, who had been touring the play since 1899.

Martin Harvey reprises his legendary stage role as Sydney Carton, despite his advancing years (he was 62). Madge Stuart plays Mimi, his maid, a character not in the original but perhaps forgivably added in the spirit of the 'doubling' that Dickens uses as the key motif of the book. From photographs of the stage version it seems that the film was a very faithful representation of the play, using the same reduced set of characters (no Madame Defarge, no Jerry Cruncher), the same beautifully designed sets, including the splendid revolutionary Tribunal hall with its mob of revolutionary grotesques, and the much imitated final vignette of the guillotine which has the effect of isolating Sidney Carton as he delivers the famous final words.

Also taken directly from the play is Martin Harvey's studied performance in a series of virtuoso set pieces showing Carton's interior tragedy. These range from comic to cynically intelligent to melancholic, and like the settings are carefully posed. The film reproduces these meticulously, leading us to suspect that Martin Harvey had a strong influence on the filming of his own performances.

When Martin Harvey is on screen the film it comes alive - the two court room scenes in particular are superbly staged. He has the ability to convey simultaneously with minimal gesture the inner thoughts of his character and the outward buffoonery he puts on for the benefit of the crowd. It seems almost impossible that Leslie Howard wasn't channeling this performance in his title role in The Scarlet Pimpernel (d. Harold Young, 1935).

But as soon as the principal is off the screen, the film becomes plodding, with few of the supporting cast making a notable contribution. Regardless, the film was quite a financial success, justfying the producers' faith in tried and trusted material.

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
1. A matter of identity (7:57)
2. The dread tribunal (13:18)
3. A far, far better thing (2:17)
Complete film: part 1 (1:34:18)
Complete film: part 2 (38:42)
Tale of Two Cities, A (1958)
Wilcox, Herbert (1890-1977)
Dickens on Film