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Les Miserables (1952)
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Les Miserables (1952)

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, has been adapted numerous times for stage and screen. It's most famous incarnation is the 1980 London premiered musical version, made into a successful film in 2012, but many other successful adaptations bear mention as well. The most faithful adaptation came from France in 1934, running over four hours and telling most of the novel's story in the process. Other film versions stick almost routinely to the first volume of the novel, excising the other four for the sake of brevity. In such cases, sticking to the spirit of the novel is the most important thing and though the 1952 adaptation veers quite dramatically from the novel in story, it stays true to the novel in spirit.

In a pre-credit sequence, Jean Valjean (Michael Rennie) explains to a court that he stole bread to feed a starving family and yet his sentence is ten years. After the credits we find him, ten years later, rowing in the galleys of a ship. There, he saves a man by putting his back under a beam, thus lifting it off of him. The officer in charge, Javert (Robert Newton), orders the man cared for but stops short at removing his collar. Later, the man dies and it is revealed to have been his father. That he was is of no concern to Javert, who believes the law is necessary and rigid and must not be circumvented, regardless of personal feelings. To Javert, the law and justice are one and the same. To Valjean, they are not and upon his release, he demands pay for all of his days in the galleys, including Sundays, a day of rest. Javert intervenes and gets him his pay because he worked those days and therefore feels he is entitled to the pay under the law.

Valjean makes his way across France, but every time he attempts to get food and shelter he is turned away. No one wants to serve an ex-convict, even one with money to pay. He ends up turning over a table of food at an inn that wouldn't serve him and running for protection to the house of a priest (Edmund Gwenn) where he is offered both food and shelter. The priest turns out to be a bishop and when Valjean is arrested for stealing silver from the bishop, the bishop informs the police that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift and even offers him silver candlesticks as well. This act of mercy impresses Valjean who changes his ways (when tempted to steal again, he does not, another difference from the novel) and, after selling the silver (except for the candlesticks), he buys a pottery shop and becomes a respectable member of the community. Of course, he also changes his name and doesn't report to his parole station, which makes him a parole violator. If he is caught, he will be sent back to the galleys for life.

Thus begins the familiar story of redemption and justice that is Les Miserables. There are many deviations from the source novel throughout but the movie holds true to the spirit intended. Lewis Milestone, two-time Oscar® winning director (Two Arabian Knights [1927] and All Quiet on the Western Front [1930]), proves himself again to be an efficient director of story. A Milestone film never lingers on action, establishing shots or location. Its scenes begin and end just before and immediately after the characters speak their dialogue. It may not make for the most visually expansive movie making ever, but it never makes for a boring experience either.

Michael Rennie, perhaps most famous for the role of the peace-seeking alien Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), plays Valjean as a strong, determined man with a believability missing in many other adaptations. His wide-shouldered Valjean, large framework and focused stare make it easy for the audience to accept this as a man forced to endure back-breaking work for years as he labored in the galleys. At the same time, after his release, Rennie has the voice and demeanor of an honorable man, still looking to find justice in the world, whether the law agrees with him or not.

Debra Paget, still a young contract star for 20th Century Fox, plays Cosette well although she is given little to do in the adaptation. Her lover Marius, played by Cameron Mitchell, suffers the same fate. This movie is entirely about Valjean and Javert with everyone else playing only bit parts. However, many of those bit parts are played by superb actors bringing all their talents and skills to bear even if it is only a few minutes of screen time. Sylvia Sidney, as Fantine, is superb in her brief appearance and Elsa Lanchester does her best as the continuously offended maid of the bishop.

The movie, however, belongs to Robert Newton and his superb portrayal of Javert. Newton was one of the best actors of his generation and the movies have never quite replaced him. A man of many demons, alcohol led to his early demise at the age of 51 but in his short time in the movies he gave one excellent performance after another. He is best known in today's culture as the patron saint of "International Talk like a Pirate Day" due to his role as Long John Silver in Disney's Treasure Island (1950), where his heightened West Country accent became the norm for the voice of pirates. But he did so much more and from Oliver Twist (1948) to This Happy Breed (1944), Newton had a range enviable among actors. Javert is yet another example of his extraordinary talent.

Lewis Milestone's Les Miserables may not be the most faithful adaptation of the novel on the cinematic landscape but its heart is in the right place. It follows Valjean and Javert and centers the entire story around the battle of ideas between justice and the law. In the process, it loses many of the subplots and characterizations familiar to those who have read the novel but retains the sense of moral struggle and redemption that so informs the book.

Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: Lewis Milestone
Screenplay: Richard Murphy, based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Music: Alex North
Film Editor: Hugh Fowler
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer, Lyle R. Wheeler
Set Decoration: Thomas Little, Walter M. Scott
Costume Design: Dorothy Jeakins
Cast: Michael Rennie (Jean Valjean), Debra Paget (Cosette), Robert Newton (Etienne Javert), Edmund Gwenn (Bishop Courbet), Sylvia Sidney (Fantine), Cameron Mitchell (Marius), Elsa Lanchester (Madame Magloire), James Robertson Justice (Robert).

by Greg Ferrara


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