Les Miserables (1952)

14 Mar

It’s a testament to the inherent power of Victor Hugo’s story that even in a lesser film adaptation of Les Miserables, something of that power comes through. The 1952 adaption by 20th Century Fox is definitely a lesser adaptation, but there is something about that story of a convict hunted by the law and struggling to do right that never fails to uplift: redemption, mercy vs. the law, love, suffering, persecution, and revolution – good stuff.

The story occurs during the reign of Louis XVIII, who was restored to the throne after the overthrow of Napoleon, and Louis-Philippe. The convict and fugitive, Jean Valjean, is portrayed by Michael Rennie, fresh off his success as Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still. His nemesis, Inspector Javert, is played by Robert Newton (who ineluctably made me think of a pirate). Sylvia Sidney appears as the doomed prostitute, Fantine, and her daughter, Cosette, is played by Debra Paget. Cameron Mitchell is Cosette’s love interest, Marius. The Thenadiers are entirely eliminated from the film, along with their daughter, Eponine. The good bishop who shows mercy to Valjean is Edmund Gwenn (of Kris Kringle fame).

Adapting Les Miserables is always a challenge, though it certainly hasn’t stopped anyone. There are numerous adaptations. Characters and subplots have to be cut. The key seems to be creating a thread that holds it all together and keeps the film from turning into episodic snapshots. For the musical, the central thread can best be summed up in the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” – “will you join in our crusade/who will be strong and stand with me/somewhere beyond the barricade/is there a world you want to see.

In the excellent 1935 film – starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton – all other characters fade and the film becomes a deeply felt conflict between the two men, who represent mercy and the law respectively. Their interactions crackle with tension and Charles Laughton in particular is compelling as Javert.

Valjean (Rennie) and Fantine (Sidney)

That central tension is missing in the ’52 adaptation and the film becomes somewhat episodic and aimless. There isn’t a central focus. Part of the problem is the script and the other part is the cast. Robert Newton is a marvelous Long John Silvers and a marvelous Bill Sykes, but as Javert, he lacks the kind of concentrated intensity and conviction to make one believe that he would kill himself because of an inability to reconcile mercy with justice. As my sister put it, it’s like he chases Valjean into the sewers because he’s personally affronted that a convict would show him pity.

Michael Rennie himself looks rather dashing, occasionally reminding me of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in his voice and manner. He seems a bit young to be Jean Valjean. The years of suffering and conviction are missing. Which might explain why the last bit of the film turns into a kind of love triangle between him, Marius, and his ward, Cosette.

Debra Paget as Cosette by far gets the most to do of any Cosette I have ever seen. Cosette is usually overshadowed by Fantine, by Eponine. She often comes off more like a plot device, a motivation for nearly every character, rather than an actual character herself. However, in this version she is more integrated (somewhat at the expense of Javert). She knows the history of Valjean. She seems to have more freedom of movement, more agency (deciding whether to stay with Marius or go to England with Valjean). But the film plays around with the idea that Valjean loves Cosette and Marius certainly believes it, thinking Valjean is using Cosette’s gratitude to keep her near him. It’s an odd twist for the story to take, pushing it into soap opera territory.

On the whole, it is an underwhelming Les Miserables, but as I said, some of that inherent grandeur remains. It’s just such a great story. The confrontation between Javert and Valjean over the sickbed of Fantine. The chase in the sewer. The slaughter of the revolutionaries. The forgiveness and grace of the bishop towards Valjean. Javert’s suicide. Valjean confessing that he is the convict to a court about to condemn an innocent man. These are the moments that make it into every single adaptation and never lose their impact, though that impact varies. If you have to see only one Les Miserables, however, I would recommend the 1935 version with March and Laughton.


Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Movies


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12 responses to “Les Miserables (1952)

  1. The Animation Commendation

    March 14, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    I’ve only seen the 2012 musical adaptation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 14, 2017 at 12:27 pm

      Did you enjoy it? I am still in awe at how a book as complex as Hugo’s was turned into an effective musical!

      Liked by 1 person

      • The Animation Commendation

        March 14, 2017 at 12:58 pm

        I really enjoyed it, it was my introduction to the musical! And it’s my fave musical! But yeah I can see that the film adaptation is kinda clunky-ish.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          March 14, 2017 at 8:00 pm

          Such a great musical! I can see how the movie would be a great introduction, too. And it seems like no matter what movie version of Les Miserables I watch, I can’t help hearing the songs from the musical in my head. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Eric Binford

    March 14, 2017 at 12:25 pm

    I haven’t seen this version. Thanks for the review. I did love the 1935 film (interestingly, Charles Laughton is my favorite Quasimodo). I also liked the 1978 TV movie, with Anthony Perkins doing a terrific job as Javert. I had many issues with the 2012 adaptation of the musical — love the Broadway show, but the movie has too many flaws. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 14, 2017 at 12:32 pm

      Yes, I rather agree with you about the flaws of the 2012 filmed musical – though I never pass up an opportunity to see it live! The 1978 version was the first one I ever saw – as a child and I had no idea what the story was about, so I found the scenes between Javert and Valjean really tense because I honestly wasn’t sure if Valjean would live or not. 🙂 But now that I’ve actually seen Perkins as Norman Bates, I’m very curious to see that one again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Eric Binford

        March 14, 2017 at 12:49 pm

        The stage show is magnificent — what a soundtrack! — but I found the film’s camera work extremely amateurish and distracting. It is not a bad movie, but it could have been better, much better … 😦

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          March 14, 2017 at 12:55 pm

          Very true…and I have to confess to a bias against all the whisper/talky/singing, but maybe that is a personal preference thing.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Grand Old Movies

    March 15, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    I agree, the ’35 version is superior to the ’52 version. March and Laughton were both so compelling. I confess, I find Michael Rennie a pallid presence, and I wonder if part of the problem is that a hammy actor like Robert Newton would have needed a stronger personality to play against.

    There are French movie versions of Les Miserables. One I haven’t seen was made in the late 1950s and stars Jean Gabin as Jean Valjean, which sounds like perfect casting. Another version I saw, that came out in the 1980s, stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and was a kind of updating-plus-commentary on Hugo’s novel. That version updated the plot to the 1930s-40s, in which Belmondo’s character learns of the original Hugo story; and scenes are interwoven from Hugo (with Belmondo as Valjean) into the updated story taking place as Nazi Fascism overtakes France, with Belmondo, as the Valjean stand-in, becoming involved with a Jewish family with a Cossette-like daughter. My description doesn’t do the film justice, because its concept actually WORKS, and watching the film (about 3 hours in length) is like settling down for a good, long, absorbing read. I recommend it highly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      March 15, 2017 at 8:17 pm

      True…it seems like Robert Newton had so little to work with in creating his character and the script seemed to write him out quite a bit – perhaps a different actor for Valjean

      I am very curious to see the Jean Gabin version! I’ve only recently begun to see him in movies – I was deeply impressed by La Grande Illusion and struck by La Bete Humaine – and he does seem like an actor ideal for Valjean. The version from the 1980s sounds really interesting – I would love to see it!

      Are you familiar with the 1934 version directed by Raymond Bernard, starring Harry Baur as Valjean and Charles Vanel as Javert? It’s five hours long and I am just now half way through. So far, it has been the most accurate version I’ve ever seen and Baur has been magnificent.


      • Grand Old Movies

        March 15, 2017 at 9:18 pm

        I’ve heard of Harry Baur, who has a high reputation in France. I will definitely try to check his film out, but I’m surprised at the length of 5 hours for a 1934 movie – seems that would have been a film shown in several parts.

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          March 16, 2017 at 10:43 am

          I think it was released in three parts. It’s pretty impressive that they were able to do that. I can’t really think of any examples of Hollywood films released in two parts…except The Three Musketeers and the Four Musketeers in the ’70s and the LOTR and The Hobbit, but those are later films.



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