on March 17, 1999
The element that should be regarded as the most important in a film adaptation of any novel is the DISTILLING of the author's main ideas, themes, and motifs into a tightly structured narrative; which is at once dramatically effective, develops smoothly, draws in it's characters strongly, action and dialogue are unified, and--as is always crucial in the cinema--visually arresting. In other words, a film--like a book--has to follow a definite, refined pattern that will bring it's ideas and themes to full realization and satisfaction. But, unlike the printed page, detail in the way of subplots, minor personages, or sociological ramblings must be sacrificed for the sake of unity, economy, and entertainment value. (Or as Hitch put it, "[F]or the sake of the human bladder.") Stories work best on the screen when told simply; with physical, verbal, audio, and visual CLUES serving to fill in the detail. So if you buy into the approach that a movie should not be just a book on film; or, more precisely, that a movie should be able to hold up on it's own, without the disclaimer that it was based on a classic novel, than this is immortality achieved. In summary, if you want a purer ESSENCE of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" than has ever been adapted for the screen, than this is the version for you! Unlike many older film adaptations of the classics, this one did not try to sell itself on star-power and prestige; nor did it, like most recent attempts, try to do so on budget, slickness, or box-office. In this brilliant evocation of Hugo's timeless story, screenwriter W.P. Lipscomb and director Richard Boleslawski pare down the mammoth novel into 1 hour and 49 minutes of riveting character study, high adventure, and sociological statement. The whole irony, incisiveness, warmth, humanity, and romantic heart are superbly conveyed in Lipscomb's intelligent and exciting script. Boleslawski (whose career was tragically short) augments the story with a high style, sympathetic handling of the characters, and careful approach to narrative. Photographer Gregg Toland (who was to later work on "Citizen Kane") stylishly illuminates and shadows the actors and sets. Above and beyond all, the lead performances of Frederic March as the pursued and persecuted Jean Valjean, and Charles Laughton as pursuer and persecutor Inspector Javert are nothing less than brilliant. In her review of the movie, all critic Pauline Kael could say about March were snipings about his high voice(!) and makeup. (Perhaps she wanted her idol Orson Welles [#@&*#!] in the role.) Apparently, she didn't realize that men with high(?) voices can have tragic lives too, and that the men who play them can achieve brilliance with them. Furthermore, she missed the fact that makeup (here actually rather discreet) does not make or break a performance. Indeed, Frederic March realized the character of Jean Valjean as no other actor has done before or since. His performance is of such vividness that you can see the complex inner conflicts his character suffers in his very eyes and body language; and is also one of refreshing honesty, humanity, and self-effacement. For any who have seen "Mutiny on the Bounty", you know just how marvelously Charles Laughton can play the scoundrel. Yet, here--in a sadly forgotten portrayal--his performance is far deeper, much more successfully fleshing out his character. One must see his opening and closing scenes to recognize the true depth of Javert's character, aspects which truly mould him as a tragic figure. These scenes, as all of his in the film, are played with a confident brilliance by Charles Laughton. It is one of the tragedies of Hollywood history that there was no Oscar category for his supporting role to qualify for in 1935. (In fact, incredibly, neither actor was nominated![though screenplay, photography, and the picture itself were]) For one to snub this movie for the sake of a handful of slightly quaint elements, such as the near lack of musical accompaniment, a couple of sentimental scenes and very minor personages, and Cozette's love interest (although I dare you to deny that he's more masculine than Leo DiCaprio!); I say, for one to reject this version based on these relatively unimportant elements only goes to prove their shallow outlook. I wonder, in another 60 years, which version is going to seem the least dated? With such a telling script, stylish direction and photography, two performances of brilliant immediacy, AND AN ENDING THAT IS NOT COMPROMISED, 1935's "Les Miserables" will still be the one against which all others will be compared!
on November 14, 2001
Fredric March stars as Jean Valjean, a poor man sent to the galleys for stealing some bread for his sister and her child. After the hardships of his imprisonment, he is naturally a changed man, but he reforms himself and becomes a productive, highly respected citizen. In doing so, he violates the terms of his parole, and for that he has Charles Laughton, a police inspector, on his trail. Although the pursuit anchors the film, there is more going on here, as the dignity and rights of all men, rich or poor, convicts or not, is also a strong theme of Victor Hugo's novel and the film. March is excellent in his role, undergoing a number of physical transformations, while always conveying the honesty of the character underneath it all. Laughton is forceful as ever, this time as the inspector that is blinded by the law and cannot see the humanity behind the actions of others. The film has a number of chase sequences accompanied by music that will certainly remind viewers of a silent film. I don't know anything about the director, but I suspect he may have come from that era. The script weaves together the various elements of the story well, and viewers will come away from the film quite satisfied.
on December 22, 2012
Now that the long awaited version of the long running musical has finally hit the big screen, it's a worthwhile exercise to go back and look at two celebrated American versions of Victor Hugo's original source material. There are two French versions (1934, 1957) that run almost 4 hours and there is the 1998 Liam Neeson version which is widescreen and in color and will probably appeal more to today's younger audiences. However if you want to get the gist of the story than this DVD is really all you need. If you don't know the book or the musical, check it out on Wikipedia first. It will aid in your enjoyment as well as show you all the changes that were made.
Both of these versions were done by Twentieth Century-Fox 17 years apart and they reflect the social currents of what was happening politically in the U.S. at the time. The 1935 version with Frederic March and Charles Laughton reflects the grim realities of the Great Depression and the social unrest that came about as a result of it. The performances by both men are extraordinary and the cinematography and editing heighten the dramatic aspects of the story. In order to fit it into 108 minutes, most of the book's subplots and colorful characters have been removed but then that's the Hollywood way. Once seen though the 1935 version is hard to forget.
The same cannot be said of the 1952 version although it is completely engaging while you are watching it. Michael Rennie, fresh from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, captures Valjean's humanity and is surprisingly effective in the opening scenes as a galley slave. Robert Newton makes for a commanding presence as Javert and reminds us that there was more to him than Long John Silver. Director Lewis Milestone (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) directs with a sure and steady hand although the film lacks his signature visual flourishes. The social unrest of the 1935 version has been scaled back although the persecution of Valjean reflects the McCarthy atmosphere of the early 1950s.
Even though the 1935 version is the better film overall, I found myself more drawn to the 1952 version with its solid supporting cast that includes Debra Paget and Cameron Mitchell as the lovers. So watch the 1952 film to get a straightforward CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED version of the story and then the 1935 version which goes into greater character development and has the signature 1930s visual style which enhances the material. While neither is the greatest version, they do compliment each other and will go well either before or after you've seen LES MIZ. With two movies here for the price of one, you can't go wrong although it should be pointed out that this is not a two disc set.