First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro
Les Miserables (1934). Directed by Raymond Bernard. Screenplay by Raymond Bernard and Andre Lang, from the novel by Victor Hugo. Starring Harry Bauer and Charles Vanet. 280 minutes. ****
Les Miserables (1935). Directed by Richard Boleslawski. Screenplay by W.P. Linscomb, from the novel by Victor Hugo. Starring Fredric March, Charles Laughton, and John Carradine. 108 minutes. ***
Other Notable Versions: Too many to list, but we will make special reference to The Fugitive (), based on the American TV series about a wrongfully accused doctor doing good deeds while on the run from a fanatical Lieutenant Gerard; the resonances were very deliberate in the TV show, and ara ceraried over by the movie)
So here’s another slam-dunk against the argument that Remakes Always Suck, occasioning the multi-part, epic return of The Remake Chronicles after a life-mandated absence of several months.
The 1935 version of LES MISERABLES starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – long considered the “classic” version, though we will take the position that there are several superior ones — was the *eighteenth* screen version of that story. The eighteenth. By 1935. Twelve of those were silent versions. Six were made by 1910. One film inspired by the material was early as 1897. There are over sixty screen versions in all, including multiple Japanese versions, multiple Korean versions, and of course multiple French versions. There are versions in Tamil and in Russian. Versions have been filmed in Egypt, Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Turkey. There are multiple versions filmed in India, using multiple Indian dialects. There’s a claymation version. There are a number of religiously-based versions that contract the entire narrative to the length of a short story and tell us only the memorable parable of the Bishop’s candlesticks, which is a great self-contained short story all by itself. There was an epic five and a half hour silent version, unavailable to us, which was more than an hour longer than the longest of the epic versions we’ll be covering.
LES MISERABLES the novel is a sprawling narrative detailing the travails of one Jean Valjean, tossed into prison for stealing a loaf of bread and released on parole only to be stalked, for the next twenty years, by a police inspector obsessed with throwing him back into prison. Most people read in abridgement, and it requires further abridgement in any even epic-length film, which is why all versions streamline or omit several storylines completely (including, yes, that four and a half hour version we’re seeing). Some omit the key villains of the novel (yes, even more so than Javert), the larcenous innkeepers / petty criminals known as the Thenardiers; others simply make them walk-ons. Some omit Valjean’s years spent hiding on the grounds of a convent in Paris. A few give short shrift to the doomed prostitute Fantine, others to the doomed gamin Eponine, others the doomed street urchin Gavroche (and we can honestly save some time here by throwing up our hands and saying that unless we specify otherwise, the word “doomed” pretty much applies to everybody). Many ignore the gardener Fauchelevent, who repays a vital favor to Jean Valjean at a key moment.
Vital connections are also usually simplified. It is possible to see most versions, including the musical, and not know that the doomed street-urchin Gavroche is Eponine’s brother, or that both are members of the villainous Thenardier clan (albeit ones who seem to have fallen from the tree). It is possible to see most versions and not know that Marius is sole heir to a vast fortune, currently estranged from his family for political reasons. It is possible to see most versions and not know that Thernadier was once rewarded for presumed bravery at Waterloo. It is possible to watch most versions and not know how cruel Marius is to Jean Valjean, at one point, banishing the old man from the life of the young girl he raised. It is also easy to miss just how often Valjean escapes Javert by the skin of his teeth. It happens more often than would ever guess; every version ever made has had to omit a couple of close calls and hair’s-breadth escapes, though they don’t all omit the same escapes, or dramatize them in the right order. At least one version we’ll cover deliberately doesn’t even take place in the correct century!
It’s impossible to cover the differences between all of these adaptations without going into some length describing the elements that are emphasized, or omitted, in each, but for now let’s just say that Jean Valjean comes into some serious money shortly after his departure from state custody, and decides to change his identity. He is sitting pretty as the mayor of a town when his old prison nemesis Javert shows up as local police inspector, notes the resemblance to a wanted parole violator, and starts investigating. Valjean finds himself responsible for an impoverished woman named Fantine, who is at death’s door after a desperate existence that has led to sell her hair, her teeth, and her sexual favors; at the moment when Valjean reveals his true identity in order, to prevent an innocent man from being imprisoned in his name, he finds himself having to flee again to rescue and adopt Fantine’s daughter Cosette.
The Definitive Version: LES MISERABLES (1934)
The 1934 French version, new to us, was made to be shown in three installments, each one the length of the average theatrical feature.
It’s leisurely, and a trial for the attention span and the sore posterior. However, it tells Victor Hugo’s story in far greater detail in any of the other versions we’ve seen. Only in this version do we meet the Thenardiers before Jean Valjean does, and see how deliberately they torment the anguished mother Fantine with demands for more and more money to presumably spend of her child; only here do we see how aware they are that she will soon have to descend to prostitution to afford this, and how little they care. It is also the only version we cover that shows us how, in later years, the Thenardiers stalk Valjean with an eye to extorting more money from him; and the only version with what we can only describe as Valjean’s superhero fight, in which an entire gang led by Thenadier attacks Valjean en masse, and he proves fully capable of handing them all their respective asses.
This version also introduces us to Fantine fairly early – we see her meeting the cad who will impregnate and abandon her – and then shows us the inexorable process which reduces this once vivacious young lady to a dying, toothless hag, dying in winter. It is a horrifying series of scenes. The 2012 musical does show us this part of the story, but gets it out of the way in two songs; this one keeps cutting back and forth between Fantine’s slide downward and the Thenadiers at home squeezing her for more cash, and it is horrifying. (Also, when Anne Hathaway’s Fantine sells her teeth, she sells the teeth in back, that we can’t see. Only one other Fantine of the number we cover is as VISIBLY destroyed, by the time Jean Valjean discovers her predicament, as the one in this film; that’s the one from the Richard Jordan / Anthony Perkins version, and there we only see the after, not the before).
This is one of the only films that introduces us to Marius’s royalist grandfather Gillenormand, here a vainglorious, slightly mad figure as well as snob. It is also the only the only film of the bunch that will tell you that street urchins Gavroche and Eponine are brother and sister, and that Gavroche has essentially divorced his parents (sleeping outside rather than associate with them, though he continues to keep an eye on his sisters).
It is interesting, then, that even here some elisions for dramatic flow are easy to discern.
For instance – as the protagonist of one rather self-reflexive version will someday memorably note – the story of Les Miserables always seems to stop dead when the young couple, Marius and Cosette, fall in love. They’re a rather dull pair in a narrative overflowing with colorful and interesting characters, and few versions manage to leap the hurdle of their interminable meet-cute-and-courtship, before more entertaining intrigues return to inject energy back into the story. (Frankly, I always thought that Marius is a fool for chasing after the insipid Cosette, when the downright adorable Eponine is not only in close proximity, but in heat.) It’s a marvelous feat of compression that subsequent versions might have done well to heed.
Secondly, most versions omit the period of imprisonment, and escape, that take place between Fantine’s death and Valjean’s visit to the Thenardier’s inn to rescue Cosette; in fact, that’s a rather substantial episode in the book, but in a movie it pretty much sets the story back at square one, at the point where it really does need to be moving forward. Various versions compress this period by having Valjean overpower Javert, or escape quickly while in custody; this version reduces that to a simple delightful image, a jail window with bars twisted like pretzels. Javert wasn’t kidding when he said Valjean was strong!
As Javert, Charles Vanel does a pretty credible job doing what every screen Javert seems to do, glower and look constipated – though there’s a nice moment during Fantine’s death scene where he takes off his cap as a show of respect to a dying woman, and in context it’s downright startling. His final conversation is Valjean is also nice, in that he visibly struggles with the difficulty of accepting his old foe as a human being.
Harry Baur is an unusual Valjean in that most movies cast a conventional leading man, and this one casts a rather burly, jowly old man who a) looks persuasively grimy as a convict, and b) is just as persuasive as a well-fed faux-aristocrat either. The long running time gives him the time to play what is likely the most nuanced Valjean, ever.
Charles Dullin’s Thenardier is also the slimiest version of that character I’ve yet seen on film, an evil and malignant little man who actively likes destroying other people as long as he can profit by it.
All in all? The best version of the novel we’ve seen.
It was followed a year later by the most famous and overpraised version.
The Compromised Version: LES MISERABLES (1935)
The old-Hollywood version usually praised as the greatest screen version of the tale certainly has a number of strong assets to its credit. Among them are a very fine performance by Fredric March as Valjean and an absolutely blow-the-doors-out-the-back-of-the-theatre ass-kicking version of Javert, assayed by Charles Laughton. Laughton was, of course, that very same year the screen’s definitive Captain Bligh, and his Javert shares much of that character’s DNA: an absolute devotion to regulation, divorced from all compassion even in the face of actual human suffering.
Laughton also gives us an element of Javert that most portrayals miss, much earlier in the tale: a hint of the man’s brittle self-loathing, especially in the scene where he apologizes to “Monsieur Madeleine” for denouncing him. It is all-too-easy, in some versions (notably in the Lewis Milestone film, still coming up), to believe that Javert is so nefarious and bereft of conscience that he arranges the arrest of the wrong man as Valjean, just to force “Monsieur Madeleine” into confessing; it is an interpretation of events that frankly makes no sense, since Javert believes Valjean to be utterly without virtue and has absolutely no reason to believe him genuinely capable of acts of conscience. But many versions either play this confrontation for ambiguity, leaving us to wonder how much Javert really knows…or achieve an unwanted ambiguity by failing to show us what’s really going on in Javert’s heart. Laughton’s performance leaves no doubt. He is wracked with torment over what he perceives as his tragic mistake, and comes so close to breaking because of it that his subsequent renewed hatred for Valjean, once he learns who Madeleine is, makes a terrible psychological sense.
This version also allows him to play up his horror when Valjean releases him at the barricades. This Javert is downright smug when he thinks that Valjean is about to kill him. He is happy. His beliefs have been vindicated. When Valjean subsequently lets him go, he is so shattered that, again, he almost bursts into tears. It is, until the musical, the best screen performance of that moment.
Alas, I must report that Hollywood standards of the era result in unacceptable bowdlerization. The movie is filled with what, to today’s eyes, amount to ridiculous compromises with the material, in order to avoid offending the sensibilities of its audience.
This Fantine does not sell her hair or her teeth and she does not descend into prostitution. Javert wants to arrest her because she bursts in on the mayor without permission. Her subsequent illness is just something that happens, nothing related to her economic status. She’s even well-dressed. There’s absolutely no on-screen evidence that she’s sunken to prostitution. It just doesn’t happen.
We get a glimpse of the Thenardiers, but Valjean does not have to argue with them in order to rescue Cosette. He just finds Cosette in the woods, and any confrontation with her cruel guardians is left to our imagination. He subsequently brings about the reunion of happy Cosette and her mother, a minor moment of closure that is pure stupid invention, utterly weakening the key story point that she dies waiting to see her child again.
The biggest and most offensive bit of story editing comes with the introduction of Marius, who tells us outright that he is “not a revolutionary.” Nope. Now, revolutionaries like Marius may not have been popular in 1935 Hollywood, but making him and his people mere agitators for prison reform, who in fact say that other than that they want MORE law and order – really, he says this! – does outright violence to Hugo’s story, and is downright unacceptable. You might as well make a new version of REDS where John Reed wants to open up a McDonald’s in Moscow. It is a craven and despicable change. It ‘s worse than a change. It is a lie.
Eponine appears, giving her life to save Marius; it is a brief appearance, and we never learn who her parents are, but she is indeed present. Enjolras is played, in a brief but fiery scene, by the great John Carradine. Very little else occurs to disturb the Valjean Vs. Javert show.
At the end of the film, Valjean bids a heartful farewell to Cosette, but walks less than fifty feet before he discovers Javert’s suicide. The implication is that he will return to Cosette with a shaken, “Never mind.” In this version, and in many others, there is no doubt that Valjean has been rewarded for all his years of selfless behavior and can now enjoy a happy-ever-after retirement. (This is not the last movie version that will give that impression.)
It is of course inevitable that any adaptation of a very long and complex book, a third the length of the version released a year before it, will miss or oversimplify some of the elements; but this one does more than that. It downright lies about many of the more uncompromising threads, softening Marius and bowdlerizing what happens to Fantine over and above the suggestion that once freed of Javert, Valjean will have a happy and unencumbered life. These are not changes made to streamline. These are changes that substantially damage the story. Charles Laughton’s Javert still needs to be seen. But aside from him this version appears to have become a classic by default – an occurrence that is downright jaw-dropping in view of the wonder that was released, albeit in another language, only one year before it.
This rather epic installment will continue, soon, with examinations of the classic story as filmed with Valjeans Michael Rennie, Richard Jordan, Jean-Claude Belmondo, Liam Neeson, and Hugh Jackman! ‘Til then, if you buy bread, get a receipt!
To be Continued!