Summary of Discussion on Doctor in the House

(Apologies for the couple of months delay in posting this. I’ve backdated it so that it fits with the ‘timeline’ of our Bogarde screenings and does not interrupt more recent news about The War Illustrated workshops etc.)

As noted in the introduction to the screening of Doctor in the House, the comedy can hardly be described as a melodrama. We showed it due to the important place it has in Dirk Bogarde’s screen image. The film was hugely popular in the UK in the year of its release (1954). It  also had an afterlife as Bogarde continued to play the role of Simon Sparrow in later films in the series (all directed by Ralph Thomas and produced by Betty Box): Doctor at Sea (1955), Doctor at Large (1957), Doctor in Distress (1963) and a cameo as Simon Sparrow in Wendy Toye’s non-Doctor film We Joined the Navy (1962). This was significantly the only screen character Bogarde played more than once, though he did not appear in the films Doctor in Love (1960), Doctor in Clover (1966) or Doctor in Trouble (1970). It is likely that audiences from the time would have especially connected Bogarde to Simon Sparrow. In the text below, I therefore go into some detail on Simon Sparrow’s personality and Bogarde’s interpretation of the role. This is aided by some consideration of the film’s other characters.  Our post-film discussion also touched on how we as modern audience members viewed the film today. For many of us, this was shaped by our knowledge of the film’s sequels and its similarity to the humour exhibited in the ‘Carry On’ series of films (1958-1992). This brought up the matter of sexism, as well as differences in generational and national perspectives.  I briefly discuss some of these matters in relation to the film’s reception on its 1955 US release.

 

Doctor in the House was based on Doctor Richard Gordon’s 1952 novel of the same name. The series of 18 novels (the final, Doctor in the Soup, was published in 1986) drew on Gordon’s own experiences as a medical student and later a qualified doctor. This was emphasised in the novels by the use of Gordon’s own name for the main character. This character was re-christened Simon Sparrow in the film, with Bogarde later revealing that he chose the name (in Brian McFarlane’s An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 69). It is an especially appropriate moniker: the Hebrew meaning of the name Simon is ‘listen’, while Sparrow conveys the image of a sweet and non-threatening garden bird.  Simon is a good-natured man, trying his best to deal with the attentions of women while completing his medical studies at St Swithin’s hospital.

Simon’s experiences with women take place at home and at work. He receives the attentions of his stern landlady Mrs Groaker’s (Joan Hickson) beautiful daughter Milly (Shirley Eaton) when she engineers an opportunity for him to examine her ankle. His unworldliness and embarrassment mean that he promptly leaves his lodgings to move in with some fellow male medical students. Simon’s housemates gently tease him about his lack of success with women, even asking ‘Don’t you want a girlfriend? Or have you a mother complex?’ In order to persuade his friends that he is keen to be in a couple, Simon agrees to be set up with ‘Rigor Mortis’ (Joan Sims). The film’s sexism is evident as the men only refer to this nurse by her unflattering nickname. The technical term refers to the first stages of decomposition post-death, but presumably it has been bestowed upon the nurse to imply that she is not the most scintillating company. ‘Rigor Mortis’ is also referred to as a ‘trial’ girlfriend – i.e. only worthy as a temporary distraction until Simon finds someone better. The scene in which Simon and ‘Rigor Mortis’ spend time alone together pokes fun at them both, though. Her appetites, and perhaps her wish not to get involved with Simon, are referenced by her continuously munching on an apple. Simon seems to be making more of an effort with their date. He is dressed in a smoking jacket and some of his gestures imply that he is playing a part – that of a prospective seducer. Any spell is quickly broken as Simon realises that his date is not enthusiastic about him. His offer to make her a cocoa is readily accepted and the mood changes from a possible hot date to a staid night in. Simon Sparrow’s behaviour here suits his name.  He listens to his date’s aural and visual cues that she is not interested in him and rather than being angry or upset he is gentle and considerate.

Simon’s interaction with another woman is also telling. He first meets model Isobel (Kay Kendall) just outside the hospital.  She responds positively to his moderate attentions and their subsequent date can be usefully compared to his with ‘Rigor Mortis’. The two women are very different characters with Isobel’s job (and the fact she is played by Kendall) partly explaining her glamour and poise. Their date at an expensive club reveals the gulf between Isobel and Simon’s incomes and expectations.  After seeing some of the prices on the menu, Simon arranges to be interrupted by an urgent phone-call. Unfortunately this backfires as he is then unable to stay when some friends of Isobel’s arrive and offer to pay for their meal. While Simon would have enjoyed a free meal, he seems intimated by Isobel’s forthright nature.

The woman who plays the largest part in the film is nurse Joy Gibson (Muriel Pavlow). Simon and Joy’s relationship gets off to a rocky start when they meet on his first day at the hospital amidst his suitcase embarrassingly spilling open. There are also misunderstandings as when they take a walk in the park each thinks the other is there under duress. This is overcome relatively quickly, but Simon then gets into trouble for returning Joy late to her nurse’s quarters which leads him to scale the building and unexpectedly drop in on another resident. The film ends with Simon and Joy together. We might expect the couple to again appear in the film’s immediate sequel Doctor at Sea (1955), but in this Bogarde’s love interest is played by Brigitte Bardot.  Joy returns in Doctor at Large (1957) and significantly this time is training to be a doctor. The relationship has ended by the time of Doctor in Distress (1963) in which Simon is involved with model and actress Delia Mallory (Samantha Eggar). Bogarde’s last ‘Doctor’ film therefore seems to backtrack on the advancement of the third in which his love interest is also a doctor. Overall in Doctor in the House, Simon’s interactions with women show him to be nervous and inexperienced, though a good listener when he picks up on ‘Rigor Mortis’’ lack of interest and finally realises that he and Joy have a lot in common.  While Simon is less enthusiastic (and sexist) than some of his friends, he is clearly heterosexual.  This is unsurprising given the time, though some of Bogarde’s later roles (including Victim, 1961, and Death in Venice 1971) as well as knowledge of his personal life may cause us to revisit and reinterpret the admittedly throwaway comment about Simon’s ‘mother complex’.

Simon’s lack of confidence which is displayed in relation to women can also be seen in his approach to his medical studies. He is conscientious and kind with patients, but not always sure of himself.  This is especially highlighted in scenes with (the admittedly very intimidating) Sir Lancelot Spratt (James Robertson Justice). Robertson Justice loomed large in the series, appearing in all 7 films, though not always as Sir Lancelot. His Captain Hogg in Doctor at Sea nonetheless also combines abrasiveness with a weighty physical and vocal presence – the films well utilise Robertson Justice’s booming voice. In one of Doctor in the House’s most well-known gags, Sir Lancelot pounces on Simon for his inattention during the medical examination of a patient who may need surgery. While Sir Lancelot’s ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ is asking about testing the length of time for a patient’s platelets to function, Simon assumes he is being gruff and responds that ‘It’s ten past ten, Sir’. (The phrase ‘What’s the bleeding time?’ has become so iconic it even provides the title of James Hogg’s 2008 biography of Robertson Justice.) Simon gains medical experience and his delivery of a baby in the middle of winter is especially effective. Simon’s first attendance at a childbirth does not start well (he has bicycle trouble on the way), but he treats the expectant mother (Maureen Pryor) calmly and kindly, so impressing her that she names her new-born after him. We had thought that the scene would be played for laughs, but it is actually very touching.

Ralph Thomas agreed with Brian McFarlane’s opinion that Pryor’s performance was affecting (McFarlane 1997, pp. 557-558). Bogarde also played the scene with sincerity: he retrospectively commented that he insisted on playing a ‘real doctor’ who never instigated anything funny (McFarlane, 1997, p. 69). Thomas reflected further on this as he claimed that the cast as a whole ‘played it within a very strict, tight limit of believability’ (McFarlane, 1997, p. 557). While this seems true of Bogarde, and indeed Pryor, we were less convinced that this was the case for Donald Sinden (playing Tony Benskin) and to a lesser extent Kenneth More (playing Richard Grimsdyke). It is worth considering Simon in relation to his fellow medical students particularly in terms of the way each approaches his love life and career. Richard is settled with his girlfriend, Stella (Suzanne Cloutier) but incredibly lax about his studies.  He has a legacy from his grandmother which offers him a generous stipend while he studies medicine – it is not in his interest to pass his exams and graduate.  In fact at the end of the film Stella decides she will study medicine and Richard is thrilled that he will be a ‘kept man’. Tony is not at all settled romantically and sees all nurses as potential targets of his extremely overt attentions. When he inadvertently proposes May (Gudrun Ure), who readily accepts him, he quickly makes sure he is not tied to her by swiftly proposing marriage to all the other nurses as well. Tony’s exam preparation is also ill-organised. The non-subtly named Taffy Evans (played by Welshman Donald Houston) seems nice enough, though his focus on Welsh sport is at the expense of his medical studies. Simon is clearly the main character. As well as having more screen time, he has the most sympathetic personality, which develops in confidence in relation to both women and his studies.

On the surface, the film’s approach to women is reductive. The women are mostly either threatening (Milly and Mrs Groakes for different reasons, Isobel, and the stern Sister Virtue (Jean Taylor-Smith)), arrogant (the only female medical student, Jane, played by Lisa Gastoni) or considered to be unattractive (‘Rigor Mortis’). This is reinforced by some of the male characters’ sexist attitudes towards women, especially Tony’s. The women also exhibit strength, however. The two older women both have authoritative manners and a certain amount of agency:  Mrs Groakes manages property, and Sister Virtue is in charge at the hospital. Sexual attractiveness is limited to the younger women, with both Milly and Isobel acting on their desires (even if they frighten Simon in the process) while sister Virtue is revealed to have had a racy past dressing as Lady Godiva. Isobel’s career as a model may objectify her, but she earns a good living from it, and other women characters also have careers, such as the nurses. Despite the notion that ‘Rigor Mortis’ is unattractive, she still fails to fall at Simon’s feet. The two most rounded female characters are Stella and Joy. Like ‘Rigor Mortis’ Joy does not just submit to Simon’s charms, and Stella’s relationship with Richard seems quite equable with her deciding to become a doctor near the film’s close. Significantly, Joy re-emerges as a trainee doctor in Doctor at Large.

It is tempting to attribute some of this more progressive approach to women to the film’s female producer, Betty E. Box. While this would be reductive, as well as difficult to prove, it is worth considering Box’s role a little more. She began producing films in the late 1940s and had taken charge of more than 15 films by the time of Doctor in the House. Her very presence as a powerful woman off screen was unusual at the time. Box’s status as a woman in a man’s world is directly commented on by Justine Ashby’s 2001 PhD thesis ‘Odd Women Out’ which examines the careers of Box and her sister-in-law the director Muriel Box. Betty E. Box played an important role in making sure the first Doctor film made it to the screen. Box relates how she read Gordon’s novel on a train and thought it would work well on the big screen (McFarlane, 1997, p. 87). She also commented on the large role she played in casting. After finding out that her first choice, Robert Morley, was far too expensive, Box secured Robertson Justice as he ‘doesn’t have to do very much except be himself’ (McFarlane, 1997, p. 87). Box noted that the downside of the film’s huge success meant that she became trapped into producing the sequels (McFarlane, 1997, p 86). Box still negotiated opportunities to produce other projects. She often collaborated with Doctor director Ralph Thomas, and at several of their films starred Bogarde – for example A Tale of Two Cities (1958). (For more on Box, see Ashby’s chapter on Betty E. Box in Ashby and Andrew Higson’s 2000 edited volume British Cinema, Past and Present.)

 House and Doctor at Large starring Richard Briers. The first of several UK television series started the next year, this again beginning with Doctor in the House, which ran until 1970. The series did not share characters with the film series, or involve Box and Thomas,  but had constancy with its own characters and actors in the sequels, at Large (1971), in Charge (1972-3), at Sea (1974), on the Go (1975-77), Down Under (1979) and the much later at the Top (1991).

We also commented on the fact that the comedy in the Doctor series of films pre-dated similar humour in some of the Carry On Series. The Carry On series began with Carry on Sergeant in 1958 and ended with the last official film Carry on Columbus (1992), though there were also TV shows and there is continued talk of a revival. All the Carry Ons were produced by Peter Rogers, Doctor producer Betty Box’s husband, and directed by Gerald Thomas – the brother of Doctor director Ralph. (The Thomas brothers co-directed Regardless in 1961 and Cruising in 62). This signals significant overlap. Saucy Carry On humour (largely characterised by innuendo and commentary on gender relations) can be traced back to music hall, seaside postcards and the like. But the fact that the series had several medical instalments is worth further comment. They comprise the films Nurse (1959), Doctor (1967), Again Doctor (1969) and Matron (1972). The Carry On medical cycle therefore started after the first 3 Doctor films had been released, and after Bogarde left the series (though he chose to return once for Doctor in Distress in 1963). Ralph Thomas asserted that the Doctor films were the first to poke fun at the medical profession (McFarlane, 1997, p. 557) and perhaps paved the way for medical humour in the Carry Ons. The large (8 year) gap between the first and second medical Carry On, and the fact that there was only 1 Doctor film after this, suggests that the medical Carry Ons briefly took the place previously occupied by the Doctor films. The medical Carry Ons only returned for one instalment after the Doctor series ended, though, with medical humour more evident in the various Doctor series on television throughout most of the 1970s.  

 The Doctor and Carry On series therefore share humour in medical situations as well as connections with their behind-the-scenes personnel. Links are also evident to audiences since some cast members appear in films from both series. Doctor in the House’s ‘Rigor Mortis’ actress, Joan Sims, appeared in a further 4 films in the Doctor series (Sea, Love, Clover, and Trouble, essaying different characters each time). She was also a stalwart of the Carry On series, starring in 24 of the total 31 films, including all 4 of the medical instalments.  Joan Hickson appeared in the Doctor films House, Sea and Love and was a ward sister in Carry on Nurse. Shirley Eaton was in two Doctor films (House and Large) and, like Hickson, played a nurse in the first Carry on medical film.

Some male actors were also seen in both series. Leslie Phillips took on a main role as in the Doctor series during Bogarde’s absence, starring in Love, Clover and Trouble. His 4 Carry Ons included Carry on Nurse, in which his character’s name, Jack Bell, helped to provide one of his catchphrases ‘Ding Dong!’ when glimpsing an attractive woman. Connections between the two series are furthered by a portrait of James Robertson Justice (presumably as Sir Lancelot Spratt) appearing in Carry on Doctor. He impressively manages to somehow cross the boundary between the two film series’ worlds.

 

One of our group was from the US and found some the situations present and accents used in Doctor in the House mystifying. (We offered to turn on the subtitles, but were not sure if some of the vocalisations, especially by Sinden, could be accurately conveyed in language!) This caused us to consider not just the film’s place in British culture (and it does seem very much based in British culture) but how it was seen in US on its release on the 2nd of February 1955. Nearly a year before this date, at the time of the film’s release in the UK, US trade paper Variety’s London reviewer opined that the film’s ‘marquee appeal may be restricted across the Atlantic’ (7th April 1954, p. 6). US trade papers on the film’s US release were generally positive, with Motion Picture Daily noting that while the cast may not be well-known to American audiences, it was likely to do better than other UK imports (18th February 1955, p. 6). The Independent Film Journal (19th February 1955, p. 29) and the Independent Film Bulletin (21st February 1955, p. 14) similarly commenting on the unfamiliarity of the cast. They both downplay Bogarde’s role by noting the presence of Kenneth More and Kay Kendall who were in Henry Cornelius’ 1953 film Genevieve which was successful in the US on its release. The Independent Film Bulletin considers that Doctor in the House ‘lacks the universal humor of the popular Genevieve’ but ‘has plenty to amuse fanciers of British humor’. This suggests that its humour is peculiarly British, and that this was not the case with Genevieve.

The two trade papers also interestingly comment on the specific exhibition circumstances: it is thought that Doctor in the House would do well in ‘art house’ cinemas (perhaps because of its very British flavour) but if correctly exploited could also succeed in the ‘general market’. The Chicago Daily Tribune (21st March 1955, p. B15) reinforces the view that the film would be well-received by the general public (‘I think you’ll have fun with this import’) as the newspaper’s readership was likely to be general rather than specialist. Another newspaper, the New York Times (18th February 1955, p. 18), implies that part of this appeal is due to the film’s innovative stance in poking fun at the medical profession, an opinion also advanced by the April 1955 issue of fan magazine Photoplay (p. 30). This recalls the director Ralph Thomas’s comment referred to in the section considering the film’s relationship to the Carry On series. While medical humour may have crossed the Atlantic at the time (despite the notion that Doctor in the House’s humour was less universal than Genevieve’s), the fact that our research group member from the US was puzzled suggests that the temporal boundary was more difficult to traverse. We wondered if her lack of exposure to Carry On-style humour was partly related to the change in television viewing habits. 15 years ago, live TV was perhaps the main way of seeing films, even though films were available to view on DVD. The rise in On Demand means that more recently viewers have had far more content to choose from and in many ways film-viewing has become less communal. We especially appreciate that the melodrama research group screenings give us an opportunity to gather together to watch films and share our diverse points of view.

 

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Summary of Discussion on A Tale of Two Cities

Our discussion about the film included: consideration of its melodramatic elements; its relation to Charles Dickens and other film adaptations of Dickens’ novels; its placing in Dirk Bogarde’s filmography and screen and star images.

It was noted that a certain suspension of belief was necessary when faced with the twists, turns and coincidences of the plot as well as the suffering, sacrifice, hidden secrets and lost memories of the characters. The film opens with the carriage in which banker Jarvis Lorry (Cecil Parker), lawyer Sydney Carton and Basard (Donald Pleasance) being stopped dramatically. This is not the high-jacking the occupants and the audience initially fear, and instead the enigmatic message ‘recalled to life’ is delivered to Lorry. We discover that this relates to the news that Frenchman Doctor Alexandre Manette (Stephen Murray) has been rediscovered, after spending 18 years in the French Bastille prison. The reunion of Doctor Manette with his daughter Lucie (Dorothy Tutin) is prefigured by her expressing extreme emotion and this is furthered when the pair meets since it is clear that her father has lost his memory as well as his wits. With Lucie’s help, Doctor Manette is soon on the road to recovery, but the entrance of two men into the story – attractive Frenchman Charles Darnay (Paul Guers) and handsome English lawyer Sydney Carton (Dirk Bogarde) soon complicates Lucie’s life. After Lucie briefly mistakes Carton for Darnay, the former, now of course in love with Lucie, soon coincidentally helps to represent his love rival in an English court. Darnay is facing trumped up charges of treason which have been instigated by his cousin the Marquis St Evremonde (Christopher Lee) and Basard. Carton succeeds in achieving Darnay’s acquittal by pointing out his own and Darnay’s resemblance to one another in order to undermine a witness’ testimony.

The situation in Paris is also eventful. The Marquis St Evremonde stands in for the entire aristocracy who are so despised by the ‘common’ French people. His family has previously traumatised Madame Defarge (Rosalie Crutchley), the wife of Manette’s servant (Duncan Lamont), by killing her siblings and parents. The Marquis St Evremonde continues this awful behaviour by sexually abusing his female servants and callously dismissing the peasant Gaspard’s grief as his young son is killed under the wheels of St Evremonde’s carriage. Gaspard exacts his revenge by stabbing the cruel aristocrat to death, and the French revolution is soon fully in flow and the and the Bastille violently breached.

Following the Marquis St Evremonde’s death Darnay (now married to Lucie, though keeping his family identity secret) travels to Paris, only to be caught up in the anti-aristocratic feeling. He is put on trial again, this time as an enemy of the French people. Tense scenes see him acquitted after Lucie, her father, and Carton travel to Paris to speak on his behalf. This is then overturned by the understandably vengeful Madame Defarge denouncing Darnay with evidence found in Manette’s old cell. Darnay is sentenced to the guillotine and the now-pregnant Lucie faces danger as the baby she is carrying means continuation of the despised St Evremonde line. Carton steps in when he recognises the Marquis St Evremonde’s former partner-in-crime Basard who is now a jailer at the Bastille. (Basard has, somewhat incredibly, earlier escaped justice in England by faking his own death.) The doubling of Carton and Darnay which has first been seen in Lucie’s misidentification and put to use by Carton in defending Darnay in court comes to the fore once more. Carton arrives at the Bastille, apparently drunk, to visit Darnay. He overpowers Darnay and takes his place, having persuaded Basard to accompany the now insensible Darnay out of the building into the care of Darnay’s wife, father-in-law and Lucie’s faithful companion the elderly  Miss Pross (Athene Seyler). The seemingly drunken Darnay is mistaken for Carton as he travels with his family to the check-point, since Carton had previously discussed his own love of French wine with the guards on his journey into the country. Finally, in perhaps the most famous instance of self-sacrifice in English literature, Carton takes Darnay’s place at the guillotine.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the amount of plot to rattle though and the revelations of various characters to be uncovered, there is a notable variety of rhythm in the film. Generally, the more staid and slower scenes are set in London, with those in Paris more rapidly paced. Time is also found for Dickensian comic relief provided by the lower-class English characters, especially Miss Pross and Jerry Cruncher (Alfie Bass). We also noted a hierarchy since the lower-class English characters are in the main depicted as better than the lower-class French characters. This is most obviously expressed when proud Briton Miss Pross (in her first, and she hopes only, visit abroad) is pitched against embittered French revolutionary Madame Defarge: Miss Pross is victorious.

Despite the fact that the French are portrayed as unnecessarily vengeful, we commented on similarities to some scenes from Russian director Sergei Eisenstein’s films which celebrated that county’s revolution. The relation of this to rhythm of A Tale of Two Cities’ editing was noted, especially its occasional use of montage (with the drumming revolutionaries centre stage) as well as its employment of unexpected camera angles. We also remarked upon the symbolism of peacocks. These birds are seen strutting around on St Evremonde’s lawn to demonstrate the Marquis’ arrogance and sense of entitlement. This brought to mind the way revolutionary leader Alexander Kerensky’s importance was punctured by comparing him to a mechanical version of the bird in in Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1927). Interestingly, the film was apparently popular with Russian audiences according to its director Ralph Thomas (Brian McFarlane, An Autobiography of British Cinema, 1997, p. 559). He attributed this to the non-commercial decision to film in black and white rather than colour, though it is also perhaps helped by the revolutionary subject matter, notwithstanding its negative portrayal of those involved.

The film interestingly does not open with the novel’s famous narration ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…’ but dives straight into the action of the possibly hijacked coach. Unlike other British films of Dickens’ work – such as Henry Edwards’ Scrooge (1935) and David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) – A Tale of Two Cities (1958) does not start with a shot of the novel. It consequently pushes Dickens somewhat into the background. This is especially noticeable when it is compared to Jack Conway’s 1935 Hollywood interpretation A Tale of Two Cities starring Ronald Colman. This not only starts with the page of the book pictured on screen but voices the famous opening lines. Perhaps then, the 1958 film points to changes in whether, and how, films claimed fidelity to their source texts.

The adding of Carton to the opening of the 1958 adaptation strains credibility in terms of coincidence but allows star Bogarde to appear earlier in the narrative. The film also diverges from Dickens’ novel with a rather disjunctive flashback as Lorry explains to Lucie her father’s history. Scenes depicting members of St Evremonde’s family abusing those of the lower classes explains the motivations of those rising up against the aristocracy, especially Madame Defarge. For much of the film some of us even forgot that we were watching a Dickens adaptation, our memories only being jolted by Dickens’ characteristic inclusion of unusual names – such as Mr Cruncher. Like Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge (1841) (set in England during the religious Gordon riots of 1780) A Tale of Two Cities is an historical novel. The society being criticised is therefore not the one that was contemporaneous to Dickens. This shows onscreen as the film’s events and costumes set it decades ahead of most of his works. While the Bogarde version distances itself from Dickens by not including the famous opening lines, changing when Carton enters the narrative and inserting a flashback early on, it does include the novel’s famous closing lines. We found the ending when Bogarde voices Carton’s thoughts ‘it is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’ profoundly moving. This was aided by Bogarde’s performance and his interaction with Marie Gabelle (Marie Versini) erstwhile maid of the St Evremondes who realises the sacrifice Carton is making, and with whom he shares his final moments.

Since the film does diverge from Dickens it is helpful to briefly consider the writer who adapted it for the screen. T.E.B. Clarke was a writer better known for his Ealing comedies including Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). He also wrote dramas, notably The Blue Lamp (1950) – a semi documentary style film in which Bogarde starred as a young villain. While initially his comedy background makes Clarke seem an unusual choice, he was nonetheless connected to Bogarde. Indeed, Bogarde later praised Clarke’s adaption of Dickens’ novel as ‘excellent’ and capturing the ‘essence’ of Dickens’ original (McFarlane, 1997, p. 69), though production designer Carmen Dillon was less complementary, describing it as not being Clarke’s ‘cup of tea’ (p. 178).

It is useful to comment on where A Tale of Two Cities sits in Bogarde’s filmography. It was released three years after the last Bogarde film we screened, Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), in which he played a wife killer with no redeeming features. In A Tale of Two Cities, Bogarde’s Carton is to start with a little unsympathetic, though his drunkenness is self-destructive rather than harmful to others, and he has charm despite his occasional moroseness. Carton finds purpose by sacrificing himself for the woman he loves, and this in turn saves him.

 

These two sides of Carton’s character are not as divergent as some of Bogarde’s earlier roles in films we have screened – most notably in Esther Waters (1948) and Hunted (1952). But it contrasts to the less complex roles Bogarde played after Cast a Dark ShadowThe Spanish Gardener (1956), Ill Met by Moonlight (1957), Campbell’s Kingdom (1957) and, most significantly, the third in the popular series of Doctor films: Doctor at Large (1957). The films in this series were helmed by A Tale of Two Cities director Ralph Thomas. In case audiences at the time were concerned that this would simply transplant Simon Sparrow to revolutionary Paris, Bogarde apparently commented on this according to British fan magazine Picturegoer. He states that this was why he was keen for Thomas to direct – he would be able to recognise any appearance of his Doctor character and this could then be removed (31st August, 1957, p. 10).

There is, unsurprisingly, a difference between the film’s reception in popular fan magazines and film periodicals. Picturegoer’s review places Bogarde centrally. It considers it his most original performance since he started paying Simon Sparrow, and questioning whether another Dickens adaptation of the novel was necessary (1st of March 1958). Fellow British fan magazine Picture Show’s premiere also mentions Bogarde, though it is more respectful of Dickens and his relevance (8th of February 1958). The March issue of film periodical Films and Filming’s review by Rupert Butler deals with Dickens the most. It praises Jack Conway’s 1935 version and provides more comparison of the source text and the 1958 adaptation than is present in the fan magazines (p. 25). Significantly, the periodical criticises the film for its lack of melodrama: it regrets that Miss Pross’ vanquishing of Madame Defarge (which it describes as ‘one of the most ridiculously splendid bits of Dickens melodrama’) occurs offscreen.  The periodical’s understanding of melodrama is further articulated as it complains that the film has a ‘desire to understate the action, to avoid even the slightest risk of excess.’.

None of this material touches on the doubling aspect or the relationship between Carton and Darnay. This is, however, key to John Style’s chapter “Dirk Bogarde’s Sidney Carton—More Faithful to the Character than Dickens Himself?” in Books in Motion, Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (2005): 69-86. Style reads the performance of Bogarde as a queer one (p. 69), commenting that he employs the ‘queenish gestures of a diva’ (p. 79). While Style usefully contrasts Bogarde’s performance to that of the ‘wooden’ Guers (p. 72), this use of gendered terms and those relating to sexuality are subjective. This is especially evident in Style’s close analysis of the ‘mirror’ scene in novel and film (pp. 80-81) focuses on its homosexual overtones. It is understandable that these were not commented on at the time, but we thought they were little present in the film text too.

It is perhaps valuable to acknowledge that these aspects appeared more clearly in Bogarde’s later films, and after information about his star image (the revelations of his personal life) came to light. The doubling aspect of A Tale of Two Cities is seen to greater effect in Libel. In our discussion of Libel, we considered that the doubling which saw Bogarde play two roles and how this connected to ideas of homosexuality. (See the discussion and the brief consideration of doubling in A Tale of Two Cities here: https://blogs.kent.ac.uk/melodramaresearchgroup/2018/11/21/summary-of-discussion-on-libel/) Homosexual elements were even more pushed to the fore in Basil Dean’s Victim (1961) which was the first British film to use the term ‘homosexual’. (By happy coincidence, we’ll be screening Victim next time!)

As ever, do log in to comment, or email me on sp458@kent.ac.uk and let me know that you’d like me to add your thoughts to the blog.