“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 as 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.” ~ Jay Carr, TCM article on Les Miserables (1935)
Adapted from the Victor Hugo novel by writer W.P. Lipscomb, the 1935 version of Les Miserables is a condensed though artfully done screen adaptation. Fredric March is Jean Valjean—a man sentenced to ten years in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread. After his release from prison, the now hardened convict is moved by an act of compassion from a bishop. Renewed with the spirit to give rather than take, Jean sets out to change his life. Under a new name, he becomes a businessman and eventual mayor. But through three phases of his life, there is one part of his past he can’t escape—the uncompromising law administrator, Javert, as played by Charles Laughton. “Regulations, good bad or indifferent, must be carried out to the letter.”
After the Production Code reasserted itself in 1934, Hollywood studios turned to safe material for storylines. There was nothing safer than classic literature. Fox production head Darryl Zanuck wanted to rival MGM, a studio which had great success adapting the classics with films like David Copperfield and Little Women. “When Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables,” Zanuck recalled, “he was raising a powerful cry against the inhumanities of the parole system then existing in France. Today the pendulum has swung the other way. Instead of being too drastic and oppressive, our system is said to be too lax. However, there is grave danger that the pendulum, swung by outraged public opinion, may again travel too far in the original direction.”
Les Miserables was the kind of “social-problem” film that Zanuck was accustomed to making at Warner Brothers. Despite being a historical drama from the previous century, Zanuck realized Les Miserables was a story that would resonate with the modern audience. The story had already been told several times since the earliest days of motion pictures. It had most recently been adapted for a French film directed by Raymond Bernard. This 1934 version is often cited as the most faithful, but it could afford to be with a running time of nearly five hours.
Though the American version is forced to remove incidents and cut some characters, it is nevertheless faithful to the spirit of the novel. Those who are interested in the differences between the novel and the film can find them on Wikipedia; we’re more interested in the film’s cinematic qualities—not its literary roots. The 1935 film is a remarkable work because it has all the qualities of great cinema, chiefly, great direction, cinematography, and acting.
Les Miserables was helmed by Polish director Richard Boleslawski, who had gotten his start directing films in Europe. Later, in New York, Boleslawski taught a style of acting that became a forerunner of Method acting. Hollywood came calling and offered him a contract. It was during the 1930s when he found great success within the studio system. Boleslawski worked with some of the biggest stars of the day including John Barrymore, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo. He also directed the last film we showed in our 2014 series, Theodora Goes Wild, with Irene Dunne. Boleslawski died at the age of 47– only two years after Les Miserables.
“A director can spend his whole life looking for the script– a story of great enough scope and purpose to spur him on to that prodigious effort which, if successful, will later be mistaken for inspiration. When the continuity of Les Miserables was placed in my hands, I knew that at last I had the script.”
When he was given the Les Miserables assignment, Boleslawski also got Gregg Toland for a cinematographer. Toland, an Illinois native, is universally considered one of the best—if not the best—cameramen in Hollywood noted for his many innovations in depth of field. His later credits would include such films as Wuthering Heights, Citizen Kane and The Long Voyage Home. Toland’s camerawork as well as the composition and lighting add a pictorial beauty that separates this version from those that followed. If you want a singing Jean Valjean, then watch the 2012 musical, but I’ll take the cinematography of Gregg Toland.
Les Miserables features many fine performances both in the lead roles as well as in the supporting ones. Fredric March gives one of his finest performances with a sincere and intensely felt portrayal of the long-suffering Valjean. March not only displays a wide range of emotions through many stages of this character’s life, but he also plays a secondary character in the film—the “old man” mistaken for Valjean.
On the TCM website, Jay Carr writes, “There was no more distinguished actor of the ‘30s and ‘40s than March. No other actor has won two Oscars… and two Tonys. 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 or 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.”
The other great performance is that of Charles Laughton as the policeman Javert. Laughton underplays the character to great effect, revealing more with his eyes than with loud bluster. He is a psychologically disturbed character, a procedural tyrant, and his interactions with Fredric March provide some of the most memorable and tense moments in the film. Laughton had starred opposite March previously in The Sign of the Cross and The Barretts of Wimpole Street. Nineteen thirty-five would be a stellar year for Laughton as he would appear in two other classics: Ruggles of Red Gap and Mutiny on the Bounty.
Also in the cast is Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the bishop who practices what he teaches. His character embodies the true meaning of Christianity. March’s real-life wife, Florence Eldridge, portrays the tragic Fantine. Rochelle Hudson is the grown-up Cosette. Hudson is best known to movie buffs for this film as well as for Wild Boys of the Road. She also appeared in several films with Will Rogers in the mid-1930s. Later in her career, she played Natalie Wood’s mother in Rebel Without a Cause. Finally, there’s Frances Drake as Eponine, a character re-drawn as a secretary to Marius (John Beal). Drake is best-known for her role as Yvonne Orlac in Mad Love, also from 1935.
Les Miserables is one of my favorite films in the series and was one of the first to be added to the schedule. It’s a film about social injustice with themes dealing with charity and forgiveness. It reveals the challenge of keeping one’s sense of decency and doing what’s right in the face of overwhelming and enduring hardships. Given the circumstances that condemn and label Valjean, it would be easy to become bitter towards life. But Valjean rises above bitterness and finds a greater reward in the wake of his spiritual rebirth. Les Miserables reflects the purest meaning of Cinema of Transcendence by presenting the ideal model of the “love thy neighbor” tenet.
Before 7 PM our audience saw the 1935 “Little Rascals” short Little Sinner. (This was the same short I had played when I last presented Les Miserables at the LaSalle Bank Theatre in Chicago.)