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.