Best Supporting Actress of 1935 – Blanche Yurka (A Tale of Two Cities)

Other Notable Performances: Helen Broderick (Top Hat), Hattie McDaniel (Alice Adams), Mary Boland (Ruggles of Red Gap), Una O’Connor (The Informer), Yuriko Hanabusa (Wife, Be Like a Rose!) Edna May Oliver (A Tale of Two Cities), Edna May Oliver (David Copperfield)

Best Supporting Actress goes to another screen villain, but Blanche Yurka’s DeFarge avoids the charm of Thesiger’s Pretorius.  Is there any creepier, icier portrayal of Charles Dickens’ most famous villain Madame DeFarge than Blanche Yurka?  She oozes malevolence and there isn’t a moment that we don’t believe she is so thoroughly evil that she would wage a twenty year campaign against every member of the aristocratic Evremonde family, even an innocent five year old girl.  Cloris Leachman got the look right in Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I but she was playing it for laughs.  Yurka is deadly serious.  She is the specter that threatens everyone in this adaptation of the classic novel, though all she does is sit and patiently knit through much of the picture.

Her eyes are cold, calculating.  She doesn’t give us a twinge of sympathy, but her sinister characterization is never cartoonish.  She plays DeFarge at a gentle simmer until her climatic speech at Darnay’s trial.  She is passionate, but it is the passion of a demagogue.  Like the great demagogues of recent years (Father Coughlin, Senator Joseph McCarthy, Jim Jones, Glenn Beck), she hammers at emotion and fear, ignoring facts and circumstances.

Yurka skillfully avoids playing it so straight that it descends into camp, which it could have easily, especially when she and Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) have their final showdown.  She exhibits such genuine rage and pain that we can’t laugh at her, the way we may have with a lesser actress glowering and overacting for the same part.

Yurka didn’t make a huge impact on the film world after A Tale of Two Cities, but her performance in this movie, like Ernest Thesiger’s in The Bride of Frankenstein, was enough to make her one of the most memorable screen villains ever.

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9 Comments

Filed under 1935, Yearly Best Performances

9 responses to “Best Supporting Actress of 1935 – Blanche Yurka (A Tale of Two Cities)

  1. It’s a while since I’ve seen this movie, but I do remember that Blanche Yurka was excellent and I enjoyed your review of her performance. Una O’Connor is also great in ‘The Informer’. Must admit I don’t warm to Edna May Oliver at all though, in either this movie or Copperfield – I just don’t get her appeal.

    • Oh, I seem to always love Una O’Connor in whatever she does. She was a terrific in comedic parts, but “The Informer” showed she had some dramatic acting chops. It does, however, hurt my heart to hear you aren’t an Edna May Oliver fan. She had an oddly approachable snootiness, especially in these two movies, that played incredibly funny to me. I have always seen her as a female C. Aubrey Smith, but with a sense of humor. She’s the only reason to watch an awful movie from ’32 or ’33 called “Ladies of the Jury.” It’s essentially “12 Angry Men” with the standard Edna May Oliver character doing what Henry Fonda would do 20 some odd years later. Again, the movie is awful, but she is great fun.

  2. “Her eyes are cold, calculating. She doesn’t give us a twinge of sympathy, but her sinister characterization is never cartoonish. She plays DeFarge at a gentle simmer until her climatic speech at Darnay’s trial.”

    Indeed Jason! Your essay here is of the top rank, and for my money you have chosen the person who delivered the best performance, perhaps in any category! Yurka is fantastic, and in a sit down of 1935 performances I would have mentioned her first, unless you beat me to the punch as you’ve done here. Great to see Oliver here in both films, and I also loved Hanabusa’s performance in that great Naruse film.

    I would add these to the mix:

    Zasu Pitts (Ruggles of Red Gap)
    Constance Cummings (Remember Last Night?)
    Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein)
    Helen Vinson (The Wedding Night)
    Florence Eldridge (Les Miserables)

    But your own list really dosen’t require any additions, even taking into consideration these as possibilities.

    • Thanks as always Sam. Your additions to my list add some good performances. I think it’s interesting that you chose this as the best overall performance. I think she definitely comes close, but there is another performance that probably is a bit better. You will hear more on that when I post my essay on the best actress of 1935.

  3. Jason: I look forward to hearing it. My own choice in that category would be Sachika Chiba for WIFE! BE LIKE A ROSE, and I would say she does equal Yurka, despite what I said above. But perhaps I am dead wrong here to jump the gun, and will not do so again, just this time in anticipation stimulated by the assertion.

  4. Ray Culkin

    Yurka has always been one of my favorites; Especially liked her as the Aunt
    in “somg of Bernadette.”
    oozed oozed evil. But let’s not forget Gale Sondergaard,(Anthony Adverse) who’s very face just oozed evil.

  5. Ray Culkin

    this bastard computer loused up my comment. about Yurka and gale Sondergaard, whose very face just oozed evil. I feel that gale wa at her best in
    :”Anthony Adverse.”
    Especially liked Yurka as the feisty aunt in “Song of bernadette.”

    • OK, I’m glad you corrected that. I thought it was strange that you thought Yurka oozed evil in Song of Bernadette because she’s kind of the opposite in that one!

      But both Yurka and Sondergaard were great at playing villains, though I think it was a good move to go with Alexandra Hamilton instead of Sondergaard as the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz.

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