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Les Miserables

Les Miserables(1934)

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Fox DVD turns to the classics to bring us two film adaptations of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables made by the same studio only seventeen years apart. The epic-length tale needs space to breath so as not to seem a trivialized, digest version of itself. Claude Berri's imaginative 1995 adaptation is about a 20th century man whose life has parallels with the story of Valjean and Inspector Javert, and seems all the fresher for it. The two American versions on this disc tell the story straight and differ in ways that are immediately apparent.

The story in brief is that young Jean Valjean (Fredric March / Michael Rennie) is sentenced to ten years' hard labor in the galleys for stealing a single loaf of bread. When freed, he finds that he remains an outcast and is denied food or shelter. A priest (Cedric Hardwicke / Edmund Gwenn) takes him in for the night. Still resentful, Jean steals the priest's silver, but when arrested with the evidence, the priest testifies that the silver was a gift and gives Valjean two silver candlesticks as well. Jean uses the silver to buy an old pottery factory, taking the name Madeleine. Within a few years he has built it into a success and is asked to run for mayor. Madeleine's new police chief is Javert (Charles Laughton / Robert Newton), a fanatic for the letter of the law who knew Valjean as a convict. When Madeleine helps dying mother Fantine (Florence Eldridge / Sylvia Sidney) regain her lost child Cosette (Rochelle Hudson / Debra Paget), Javert realizes his true identity, and the chase is on. Valjean and Cosette flee to Paris and safety, until Cosette becomes romantically involved with a student radical, Marius (John Beal, Cameron Mitchell). Among the secret police tracking Marius is Javert, who is astonished to once again find his prey.

The atmospheric and artful 1935 version was probably instigated by new Fox production head Darryl Zanuck to serve as a perfect vehicle for the 'class' actor Fredric March, and to compete with David O. Selznick's literary adaptations over at MGM. Victor Hugo's protests against injustice would likely appeal to Zanuck, who would soon be making socially conscious prestige pictures on a yearly basis: The Grapes of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident, Wilson, Gentleman's Agreement. Director Boleslawski focuses firmly on the battle of wills between the rehabilitated Valjean, an underclass hero redeemed by a good churchman, and the tireless Inspector Javert, a man from similar poverty who has risen in the ranks of the constabulary by being absolutely ruthless in his application of the law.

Fredric March is certainly appealing as a basically good man condemned as a ship's slave, but Charles Laughton is even better as the almost psychotic Javert. Laughton is riveting from his first scene, where he must plead his loyalty before superiors suspicious of his background, and in a later confrontation where he asks Madeleine/Valjean to turn him in for momentarily suspecting the new Mayor's hidden identity. We see the little Cosette as a child, and then a young woman, and can feel Valjean's upset when he realizes that Cosette regards him as a father and not a future husband. The life-and-death pursuit between Valjean and Javert amid the street battles and barricades of a Paris revolution provide the epic finale. Valjean repeatedly refuses to kill his tormentor when he has the chance, hoping that the detective will learn the nature of mercy and forgiveness. We can feel Javert's inner conflict; between this film and the same year's Mutiny on the Bounty Charles Laughton had a monopoly in complex villainy.

Fox remade Les Misérables in 1952 as a vehicle for Michael Rennie, who had been a hit the previous year as the mysterious alien Klaatu in Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. Under veteran director Lewis Milestone, writer Richard Murphy's script compresses the narrative almost to the breaking point. The earlier events of Valjean's unhappy life flash by and the story only slows when the parole violator starts his successful business. Studio economizing shows in smaller crowd and action scenes. Also, Debra Paget's role is expanded at the expense of Robert Newton's Javert. When we first see Cosette she's already played by Paget, and the story skips quickly to her involvement with her young student. Much of the detail of the first version is lost, as the student protestors are now generic radicals instead of issue-oriented protestors. The romantic character of Eponine, played by Frances Drake (Mad Love) doesn't appear in the remake. Reduced in complexity and scale, Milestone's version begins to resemble a dinner-theater version of the story.

Michael Rennie's acting is acceptable, but we don't sympathize with him as Valjean, especially when he breaks out in fits of anger over his adopted daughter's shift of affections. As much as we like to see Debra Paget, she doesn't bring much to this particular part that twenty other ingenues couldn't, and Cameron Mitchell isn't all that interesting either. But the real problem is Robert Newton's Javert. His role has been trimmed considerably -- the two important scenes mentioned above from the 1935 version do not appear -- with the result that he just seems an unusually determined cop too stupid to know when to back off.

Both pictures have standout performances in small roles. Leonid Kinskey is a maddened prisoner in the 1935 version, a role enlarged in the second show by the great Joseph Wiseman, who makes the convict more Judas-like. Jessie Ralph is a suspicious housekeeper in the first film but the role shrinks to nothing in the remake, leaving Elsa Lanchester (Charles Laughton's wife!) high and dry. The first version makes the wild-eyed John Carradine into a perfect student radical, but the remake is too rushed to introduce more minor characters. We instead get James Robertson Justice as Valjean's loyal business associate, a character not seen in the first version.

Both versions of Les Misérables on Fox's new Cinema Classics Collection release carry disclaimers about substandard film elements. The 1952 film is actually in near-perfect shape. The 1935 version doesn't appear to be cut, although some sequences are excessively grainy and the opening titles are interrupted by something we haven't seen in years, a TV syndication card from National Telefilm Associates. Apparently the only surviving dupe negative of the film was permanently defaced in this way. Until home video and cable television prompted studios to retransfer original vault material, most 16mm television prints were made from copies marred by distributor logos like this one. Many films lost half a title sequence, or had atmospheric final scenes cut off by ugly 'The End' cards.

The two transfers occupy opposite sides of a flipper disc and come with a restoration comparison and a still gallery. The 1952 side has a trailer and a good John Cork featurette about the historical figure Eugène François Vidocq, a crook turned master detective of the early 19th century who is said to have provided the inspiration for Victor Hugo's characterizations. The author split the man's personality in two, making one the humanist victim of an unjust society, and the other the brilliant but merciless lawman.

For more information about the double feature of Les Miserables, visit Fox Entertainment. To order Les Miserables, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson