Vitagraph was perhaps the most famous amongst the Nickelodeon Era studios, specializing in historical scenes and literary adaptations. Back in the time of one- or two-reel movies, these pioneers adapted for the screen a good deal of Shakespeare and classic novels – the challenge being to tell a complete story in ten or twenty minutes.
Here you have a minute or so of introduction about Vitagraph, and then three minutes and a half from their 1911 A Tale of Two Cities, starring Maurice Costello as Sydney Carton, and a young Norma Talmadge playing the doomed Seamstress – who doesn’t get to die here because, for his own unfathomable reasons, screenwriter Eugene Mullin saw it fit to send Carton to the guillotine first.
From the early Tens, audiences and film-makers began to show a liking for longer films, allowing for more in term of plot and character development. At Vitagraph they must have seen that, in spite of being one of Dickens’ less sprawling works, ATOTC could only benefit from an additional reel: Sydney Carton’s story was released in three weekly one-reel instalment – although, as far as I can find, only a two-reel cut survives.
What I find especially fascinating in very early movies, is to watch the new art finding its legs, as it transitions from theatre to filmed theatre to something else entirely – via a certain dose of pantomime.
To see what screenwriters chose to keep, compress, change or throw out in order to cut the plot to the required time is another interesting exercise. A pity that, unless a complete version turns up, we can never play the game with this first adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities.