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Raymond Bernard's Les Misrables (1934) is arguably the crowning effort of French studio filmmaking in the 1930s. The film's great achievement is to bring the world of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel convincingly to life through meticulous direction, acting, cinematography and production design. The closest English-language parallel is perhaps David Lean's pair of Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), although Les Misrables operates on a much larger scale.
To be sure, even the nearly five-hour running time of Les Misrables is by no means enough to capture all of Hugo's novel. Besides its intricate plot, the novel includes numerous authorial ruminations by Hugo such as a comparison between the June 1832 Republican Insurrection, which is central to the novel's action, and the Revolution of 1848, which occurred well after the novel ends. Hugo further wrote at length on the Battle of Waterloo, to which the film alludes only through the character of Thnardier and his painting. Hugo even describes the history of the Paris sewers. Another minor difference between the novel and film is that Raymond Bernard's adaptation is divided into three separate films--"Tempest in a Skull," "The Thnardiers" and "Liberty, Sweet Liberty"--whereas the novel is divided into five volumes: "Fantine," "Cosette," "Marius," "Saint-Denis" ("L'idylle rue Plumet et l'pope rue Saint-Denis" in French), and "Jean Valjean." Still, this is commonly regarded as the most faithful film version on the whole.
Son of the famous playwright and novelist Tristan Bernard, Raymond Bernard (1891-1977) initially developed a reputation in the early Twenties for intimate psychological dramas, including a few adaptations of his fathers' own works, though he later proved to be a master of the large-scale historical spectacle as well. Some of his major films include The Miracle of the Wolves (1924), The Chess Player (1927) and the now-lost Tarakanova (1930). Bernard's World War I epic Wooden Crosses (1932) depicted such realism in its war scenes that Fox purchased the rights to the film in order to reuse the footage in is own productions, including John Ford's The World Moves On (1934) and Howard Hawks' The Road to Glory (1936).
The lead actor Harry Baur (1880-1943) is best known today for his performances in Abel Gance's Un grand amour de Beethoven (1937) and this film, arguably the strongest of his career. However, the diverse and prolific actor also played King Wenceslas in the notorious 1896 stage production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi and in a number of Jewish-themed films during the Thirties, among them Julien Duvivier's David Golder (1930) and Le Golem (1935). In 1943, during the occupation of France, he was found dead after being interrogated and tortured by the Gestapo.
Jules Kruger (1891-1959) was one of the most talented cinematographers of his day, working on major French productions such as Abel Gance's Napoleon (1927), Marcel L'Herbier's L'Argent (1928), Bernard's Wooden Crosses and Julien Duvivier's Pp le Moko (1937). Les Misrables, in particular, is notable for its extensive use of underlighting, chiaroscuro lighting and canted tilted framing. As in Napoleon, Kruger uses handheld camerawork, especially during the 1932 insurrection, though more selectively and with far more restraint than in Abel Gance's film. The cinematography in Les Misrables also stands out for Kruger's complex interior lighting schemes, which bring forward the vivid textures of the period-accurate sets in addition to delineating the characters within the frame and contributing to their expressive physical presences. In that respect it stands out as a high point in French studio lighting of the era.
The composer Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) is known mainly for his orchestral composition Pacific 231 (1923), but he in fact wrote a number of film scores besides the one for Les Misrables, including for Abel Gance's La Roue (1923), Napoleon and Anatole Litvak's Mayerling (1936). The score for Les Misrables illustrates Honegger's characteristic use of driving rhythms, especially during the 1832 insurrection. Another highlight in the score is Jean Valjean and Marius' escape through the sewers of Paris.
According to scholar Dudley Andrew, when Les Misrables was released a number of newspapers and magazines in France attempted to draw parallels between the film's social vision and the unrest caused in France during January and February 1934 - the Stavisky affair and the Paris riots. Comoedia described it as "a film of lofty ideas where the soul of the spectator can meet the great poet whose wisdom is still relevant today." Despite this, for many years the film was available only in various cut versions, some as short as 150 minutes. In the Seventies Bernard reconstructed the film to nearly its original length in collaboration with his editor, Charlotte Guilbert.
Director: Raymond Bernard
Producer: Raymond Borderie
Script: Andr Lang and Raymond Bernard, adapted from the novel by Victor Hugo
Director of Photography: Jules Kruger
Art Direction: Jean Perrier
Set decoration: Lucien Carr
Costume design: Paul Colin
Score: Arthur Honegger, conducted by Maurice Jaubert
Principal cast: Harry Baur (Jean Valjean); Charles Vanel (Javert); Henry Krauss (Monseigneur Myriel); Georges Mauloy (Le President des Assises); Pierre Pierade (Bamatabois); Charles Dullin (Thnardier); Marguerite Moreno (Madame Thnardier); Florelle (Fantine); Marthe Mellot (Mlle Baptistine); Gaby Triquet (Cosette as a child).BW-
by James Steffen
Abel, Richard. French Cinema: the First Wave, 1915-1929. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.
Andrew, Dudley. Mists of Regret: Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.
Les Miserables (1934)
Starting with the Lumiere brothers' 1897 one-reeler, there have been 40-odd adaptations of Victor Hugo's epic novel, Les Miserables, including two from France that mimic the book's gargantuan scale - Henri Fescourt's 359-minute silent (1925) and Raymond Bernard's 305-minute sound film (1934). Since its publication in 1862, the book has never been out of print. The masses immediately embraced it and haven't stopped - not surprising since they're the book's ultimate heroes. The current musical stage version, source of the most recent film, has been running for years. So, a bewildering array. But if you haven't seen any of them, and want to choose one, make it the 1935 Les Miserables starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton and directed by Richard Boleslawski.
It simply gives us more of the book's core, unfurled like a banner, draped over an intelligent 108-minute screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb that seems a small miracle of concision. Hugo's themes and gigantic clashing antagonists emerge intact, with their inner selves revealed as well at their outer. The social protest couldn't be more explicit, especially in its outcry for ameliorating harsh penal codes. And yet the film makes clear that there is a moral dimension to Les Miserables and moral distinctions that most adaptations miss. It gives the actors that much more to work with and the film is richer with both actors integrating them into their characters.
March has the tougher assignment because he plays goodness in action, never as much fun as evil carried to deranged levels in the name of good by Laughton's deranged Inspector Javert. The latter spends decades bulldogging March's rehabbed prisoner, Jean Valjean, so he can throw Valjean back in prison on a technicality. Valjean becomes a criminal when he's caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her baby. His sentence? Ten years as a galley slave. Not that his troubles are over when the ten years are up. Upon being released, he's given a special passport identifying him as an ex-con. Nobody will hire him, or rent him a room. In effect, he's stigmatized, guilty for life.
Bitter, he's given lodging by a bishop who practices the Christianity he preaches (played with gravitas and wisdom by Cedric Hardwicke). He repays his host's generosity by stealing the latter's silverware. When he's caught and brought before the bishop, the latter says he gave Valjean the silver, and throws in a pair of candlesticks. This is where the film falters. Entering the bishop's bedroom at night, he's struck by how the moon lights the sleeping cleric's face. Stumbling away from the bishop's house gratefully with the silver, he stops at an outdoor crucifix. And to the accompaniment of an angelic chorus, he experiences a spiritual renewal. On the whole, a bit too clunkily pietistic and cloying.
Still, it turns him around. Five years later, under an assumed identity, he has built a prosperous glass factory. His good works lead to his being elected mayor and magistrate.Javert's motivation is laid out more vividly. His father was a convict and his mother was a prostitute. But he's a hard worker and overcomes his low origins to become a cop. His boss overlooks his beginnings. But Javert can't. He becomes a maniacal stickler for following the letter of the law, not from a love of justice, but to discharge his rage and self-loathing. When he's posted to the town where the disguised Valjean is mayor, they soon clash. And Javert, suspicious, starts digging, determined to bring him down.
There was no more distinguished actor of the '30s and '40s than March. No other actor has won two Oscars® (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 and The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946) and two Tonys (Years Ago in 1947 and Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1957). His roles were often derived from literary sources or classics. He made decent and even heroic men come alive, never allowing them to perish under a pall of worthiness. Here, he's often photographed in full of three-quarter profile. But he never just lets his leading-man profile do the work. In scene after scene his eyes flash with sensitivity and sentience. He's a man with a keen eye for injustice, and the will and means to fight it, as his life is more and more touched by the political turmoil of the times.
Javert doesn't hesitate when Valjean asks him if he ever tempers justice with mercy. "No," he spits in reply. Laughton never needed anyone to tell him how to act with his eyes, and much of the time they're the only animated feature in his sallow pudding of a face. The '30s were a brilliant period for Laughton, too. Here, he wisely underplays Javert, a character whose extreme ways never need italicizing. And Laughton knows just where to go with the masochistic part of Javert's sado-masochistic nature. The only time Javert comes close to losing it is when he demands that a mistake he made requires the mayor to dismiss him. Valjean refuses to. The moment is repeated in a larger context after the angry crowd seizes him during a riot and hands him over to Valjean, who promptly unties him, upon which Javert goes ballistic. He can't forgive Valjean for forgiving him, can't stand being outclassed by the man whose nemesis he was. When he breaks, he does so with features frozen save for a slight quiver of his meaty lower lip.
March and Laughton aren't the whole film, but they're most of it. Florence Eldridge, March's real-life wife, turns up as Fantine, the woman he rescues from Javert's wrath and whose illegitimate daughter he adopts. Director Boleslawski's attention to detail reinforces the belief that the world lost a superior talent when the Polish director died at 48. After working with Stanslavski, he and Maria Ouspenskaya founded the forerunner of The Group Theater and The Actors Studio. His Hollywood films included Rasputin and the Empress (1932) with John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, Men in White (1934) with Clark Gable, The Painted Veil (1934) with Greta Garbo, The Garden of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) with Joan Crawford and William Powell. I'd like to think it was his idea to dress the have-nots in Les Miserables in rags and tatters while the uniformed police are dressed like Napoleonic field marshals.
By Jay Carr