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Les Miserables (1935) – Fredric March, Charles Laughton

Les-Miserables-1935-PosterI’ve read that the best Hollywood adaptation of Victor Hugo’s immense Les Miserables (my copy is 1400 pages) is the 1935 version, directed by Richard Boleslawski and starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton. My understanding is that the 1934 French adaption by Raymond Bernard is even better (and five hours), but I haven’t had a chance to see it yet. But the Hollywood version is quite excellent, considering that they squished 1400 pages into 108 minutes. They manage it by taking almost all the characters and turning them into a connected, but peripheral, influence on Jean Valjean as he moves through life, focusing almost exclusively on him and his conflict with Inspector Javert, contrasting the two men and their visions of life: mercy vs. the law.

Jean Valjean (Fredric March) is sentenced to prison for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her children. He receives five years, but his time is increased to ten when he tries to escape. Prison is brutal and inhuman and when he is released, he is bitter and hardened by the experience. Everyone treats him like a convict, so he begins to act like one, until he meets the saintly Bishop of Digne (Cedric Hardwicke).

The Bishop offers him food and shelter and is the first person to treat Valjean like a human and even when Valjean responds by robbing him, he still forgives him and tells the guards that he had given Valjean the silver plates as a gift and even throws in some valuable candlesticks for good measure. The Bishop tells Valjean that “life is to give, not to take” and Valjean embraces this as his creed, completely transforming his life, always keeping the candlesticks to remind him of what the Bishop gave him and what he owes to others in response.

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Cedric Hardwicke and Fredric March

This is all contrasted with Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton), who Valjean first meets as a prison guard. Unlike Valjean, he was actually born in the criminal class, but determined to rise above it by embracing the law. His creed, and he repeats it several times, is “good, bad, or indifferent – it’s no business of mine, but the law to the letter.” In this film, he seems less obsessed with the fact that once a thief, Valjean will always be a thief, than with the idea that the law has gone unfulfilled when Valjean broke parole and therefore must be apprehended to restore balance to the law. It’s like he’s pinned his entire identity on being the man who follows the law that when there’s any irregularity done or grace given, he loses a bit of himself, something demonstrated brilliantly and subtly by Laughton.

The entire movie – though it hits all the highlights of the novel – is really built around three moments of temptation for Valjean and the outcome of those moments. In the first, he considers murdering the Bishop (until he sees his saintly face in the moonlight). By abstaining, the Bishop is later able to forgive him and and offer him a second chance at life instead of sending him back to prison for theft.

The second moment comes after he has established himself as a respectable businessman and mayor under an assumed name. Javert at first thinks he must be Valjean, but another man who looks like him is arrested instead. Valjean is now faced with the choice of letting that man take his place or speaking out. It is only when he looks at the candlesticks the Bishop gave him that he summons enough moral strength to do what is right.

Fredric March and Charles Laughton in one of the many face-offs

Fredric March and Charles Laughton in one of their many face-offs

The third moment comes when Javert has once again found Valjean’s hiding spot and Valjean intends to flee with his adopted daughter, Cosette (Rochelle Hudson). But Cosette loves Marius (John Beal), a revolutionary student who is fighting on a barricade during an uprising in Paris. In a unique twist of the film, it is hinted that after Valjean took Cosette away from school, he fell in love with her, though she regards him as a father. But for a brief moment, he is tempted to take her away with him and leave Marius to his fate. Once again, he makes the supreme sacrifice and ventures out into the violent night to rescue Marius and we have the immortal scene that all adaptations manage to include, with Valjean carrying Marius to safety via the sewer – which looks impressively dirty and atmospheric and is a real highlight of the film, with Laughton’s Javert in pursuit.

March and Laughton are both superb. March is a bit young – in his thirties – which could be why the timeline is so condensed from the book. He does not look like an old man who would be on the point of death at the end of the film (in the movie, he is allowed to live); he looks very healthy and even rather dashing, but March brings sincerity and conviction and manages to transition from rough criminal to respectable man of conscience very well. Laughton is likewise good. His Javert has a grain of vulnerability about him. He clings to the law, partially because (as happens at the beginning of the film) his honesty is questioned because of his background. But vulnerability or not, he remains an implacable force and the scenes between March and Laughton are by far the best moments in the film.

Valjean saves Javert's life at the barricade

Valjean saves Javert’s life at the barricade

The other characters are diminished, as a result, though it doesn’t hurt the story. Fantine (Florence Eldridge), in particular, her story almost entirely glossed over, except that she wants to be with her daughter, Cosette. The only evidence we have that she has resorted to prostitution is the floozy dress she is wearing. Cosette remains the passive, but important, motivation for nearly every character except Javert. Everyone is doing something because they love her: Valjean, Fantine, Marius. The Thenardiers are almost entirely absent from the film and Eponine (Frances Drake) retains a small role as Marius’ secretary (?), who is jealous of Cosette, but loves Marius too well to see him hurt. Also, look for John Carradine as the revolutionary Enjolras.

Curiously, there is almost no music in the film, except at dramatic moments, like when Valjean and the child Cosette flee Javert or when Valjean carries Marius through the sewers. But it actually heightens the tension during the scenes between Javert and Valjean…and I kept hearing songs from the musical in my head anyway, so I didn’t miss it too much.

It’s well worth seeing, even if you are not a fan of the musical or the book; with a well-told story and great acting by the two leads.

 

 
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Posted by on August 5, 2015 in Movies

 

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Witness for the Prosecution – Movie, Play, Short Story, from Agatha Christie to Billy Wilder

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

Charles Laughton as the barrister and Tyrone Power is on trial for his life

One of the best adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is Witness for the Prosecution, released in 1957 and starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power and Elsa Lanchester. It is a courtroom drama, but also a suspense story and even a bit of a comedy. It is one of those films that you think perhaps Alfred Hitchcock could have directed, though it does contain the trademark biting wit of the actual director, Billy Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay, with barbed words and witticisms zinging through the courtroom.

The movie is known for its surprise ending and when I first saw the film, I unfortunately knew the surprise, or at least some of it. But what I discovered is that even though I knew the twist at the end, I did not have the ins-and-outs of how it was worked out quite right and my enjoyment was nearly as high as if I had not known what was coming. And even knowing everything, the film loses nothing in subsequent viewings. There is too much humor, good characterizations and the fun of knowing what is coming and watching people’s reactions to things other characters do not know.

Not only did the movie introduce me to Billy Wilder, Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton (I already knew Tyrone Power from his swashbucklers, like The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan), but it also made me want to read the original Agatha Christie story. Witness for the Prosecution is based on a 1953 play, which Agatha Christie adapted from her own short story from 1925. I read them both and it was fun to see how the basic story remained the same, but was changed to suit the increasingly visual mediums, from page to play to celluloid.

51XqC-+3slLBut the story remains the same in all three. Leonard Vole is a pleasant young man who seems to have a way of unconsciously making people, especially woman, like him. He becomes platonically involved with an elderly lady who is murdered, but leaves all her wealth to him. Unsurprisingly, he is then accused of the murder. His solicitor and barrister work to get him off in the face of nearly impossible odds. To make it worse, Vole’s German wife, Romaine (Christine in the movie) seems curiously antagonistic towards him and surprises everyone by refusing to give him an alibi and instead stands up in court to denounce him (since they were not legally married because she had a husband in Germany still living). The solicitor and barrister then receive evidence that might disprove her story.

Short Story by Agatha Christie (1925)  – The short story is told from the perspective of Leonard Vole’s solicitor. We see everyone, Leonard and his wife Romaine, from his perspective. In this original version, Romaine dominates the story. The story is really about her, though we do not meet her right away. The solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, believes Leonard when he tells him he is innocent, though the case looks very bad, but cannot figure out the motivations of Romaine.

In England they have solicitors and barristers. The solicitor is the one who works closely with the client, acts by the authority of the client, but cannot speak in court. The barrister does not have as much contact with the client, cannot act for them, but is the one to make the case before the judge. In the short story, we hardly meet the barrister. He has perhaps one line, but the story is not centered in the courtroom. It begins in Mayherne’s office, passes through the courtroom briefly and then wanders away as Mayherne follows a lead that might break Romaine’s testimony. It is very interesting, but lacks punch when you already know what is coming.

witness_playPlay by Agatha Christie (1953) – In his introduction to The Mouse Trap and Other Plays, Ira Levin writes that Agatha Christie began writing plays because she felt that when other people had adapted her novels into plays, they adhered too closely to her novels, thus making the play confusing. When she adapted her own works, she changed and simplified plots, once even changing who the murderer was and occasionally removing Hercule Poirot from his own story. For “Witness For the Prosecution,” however, she expanded the plot rather simplified it, though she does change some things.

In the play, Mayherne becomes Mayhew, but must share space with the barrister, Sir Wilfrid, as the story becomes a courtroom drama. The plot remains the same and Romaine remains a figure of mystery, much speculated on by the lawyers. And where the short story really doesn’t speculate on who the murderer is if Leonard didn’t kill her, the play offers a suspect in the murdered woman’s housekeeper, the extremely bitter Janet McKenzie, who is also in the short story but less prominent. The play also provides one extra twist to the end of the story that was not in the original story.

Film, directed by Billy Wilder (1957) – Reportedly, Billy Wilder did not want to make Witness for the Prosecution; he felt an adaptation of a play wouldn’t be particularly challenging for him. However, he does an excellent job and really brings the story to life. Where the play is just a courtroom drama, Billy Wilder brings humor and humanity. The biggest change is how he makes Sir Wilfrid (Charles Laughton) the center of the story and gives him a story of his own that is separate from the trial, though connected.

Sir Wilfrid worked so hard that he suffered a heart attack. The movie opens with his return to his office with a nurse in tow (Elsa Lanchester) and orders from his doctor not to take any stressful cases. But Mayhew the solicitor brings along Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power) in an effort to interest Sir Wilfrid. With his nurse protesting all the way, he decides to take the case. Suddenly, not only is Leonard Vole’s life at stake, but also Sir Wilfrid’s, who has to take pills throughout the trial for his heart.

MV5BMTc0MjgyNTUyNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDQzMDg0Nw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_The relationship between Sir Wilfrid and his nurse, played by married couple Laughton and Lanchester, is great. She is the super-cheerful, commanding kind of nurse so often found in Agatha Christie novels who have a habit of saying “we” instead of “you” (how are we doing today?). But she has her match in Sir Wilfrid, who hides cigars in his cane and whisky in his thermos instead of cocoa, and their interaction provides half the laughs. But they also develop an unexpected and mutual respect for each other in the end.

Laughton is the real star of the film. His Sir Wilfrid is brilliant, petulant, warm-hearted and tyrannical, but also truly cares about his clients and is not in the business just for his reputation. As a result,though, of Sir Wilfrid’s prominence, Leonard Vole’s wife (now called Christine and played by Marlene Dietrich) is slightly less the overshadowing figure that she is in the short story and play, but her character remains a highly interesting one, and the one around which the plot still turns.

I don’t want to spoil the ending if you’ve never seen the play or movie, but it is an excellent film. Along with And Then There Were None (1944), it was one of the few movie adaptations of her books that Agatha Christie liked.

Random Note – in the film, the murdered woman’s housekeeper, Janet McKenzie, is played by the inimitable Una O’Connor (The Bride of FrankensteinThe Invisible ManChristmas in ConnecticutThe Bells of St MaryThe Adventures of Robin Hood). O’Connor also played the housekeeper in the play only several years earlier. Since McKenzie seems extremely bitter in the play (though I’ve only read the play, but that is how it seems) and is comedic in the movie, I am extremely curious how she played the role on stage.

Here is a clip of Sir Wilfrid cross-examining Janet McKenzie.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Drama, Fiction, Mystery, Plays, Suspense

 

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St. Martin’s Lane (aka.The Sidewalks of London)

1938 – Starring Charles Laughton, Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison, Larry Adler – Directed by Tim Whalen – Written by Clemence Dane

vivienso1sss[1]A Cockney Scarlett O’HaraTFSStMartinsLaneImg3[1]

A Cockney, sidewalk performing, Quasimodo

Rex Harrison – younger and, for once, not irascible

That is the essence of St. Martin’s Lane. The title comes from a street in England where the opera house, theatres and various cafes and stores that cater to the theatre-going public, are situated. However, there was concern that Americans would not be aware of this association (I wasn’t aware), so the title of the movie was changed to Sidewalks of London when it was released in the US.

The movie stars Charles Laughton, was co-produced by Charles Laughton and was co-written (though un-credited) by Charles Laughton. He wanted his wife, Elsa Lanchester, for the role opposite him, but Alexander Korda (kind of a British David O. Selznick, except he was also a director) offered to finance the film if Laughton would cast Korda’s new discovery instead: Vivien Leigh.

Apparently, Vivien Leigh did not like working with Laughton anymore than he liked working with her, though he was evidently more professional about it – helping her with her lines and so on; though he also cut down her part so the film would focus more on his character.

tumblr_mh7jbxRfA31qh4om2o1_500[1]In the film, Charles Laughton plays Charlie, a busker (a busker is a sidewalk entertainer who performs for those waiting in line for the theatre) who’s specialty is proclaiming the classics on the streets. Vivien Leigh is a pickpocket named Liberty. When Charles Laughton catches her in the act and chases her, he later discovers that she also has a great gift for dancing and gives her a place to stay and incorporates her into his new act. However, Rex Harrison is a composer who runs across her (she stole his cigarette case) and wants to help her become professional, working inside rather than outside.

Charlie is not really like Quasimodo, but it made me think of it (though he did go on to play him in the film version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1939). It’s not so much because he is physically repulsive to people, as he’s a ham, twice Liberty’s age, who falls in love with her, whose love is not returned, and looks ridiculous in the eyes of others.

Liberty, however, is like a warm-up for Scarlett O’Hara. Vivien Leigh would do Gone With the Wind the very next year, proving once again that she can play unlikeable characters in a likeable way. That’s how she gets away with such ruthlessness. As Liberty, she is a little nicer than Scarlett; she does recognize Charlie’s worth as a person. However, she intends to be a star and become a star and she has the same appealing manner, ruthlessness of intent and fiery temperament as Scarlet (she manages to break quite a few of Charlie’s dishes).

I recently watched GWTW and a documentary about the making of the film, and I was impressed at how well Leigh had done; when she seemed to have come out of nowhere. She had only had three starring roles before GWTW, but seeing her early films, I can definitely see how people could have thought she could play Scarlett.

st-martins[1]It was also interesting to see Rex Harrison. I’d mostly seen his later films, where he is usually irascible and a superior pill (My Fair Lady and Dr. Doolittle). In this film, however, he has none of his usual crankiness and plays a fairly nice, straightforward fellow who is in love with Liberty, but discovers, like Charlie, that she loves her career more. There was supposed to be more of a romance between them, but that was part of the story that Laughton took our when they cast Vivien Leigh.

Notes: Leigh must not have cared for this role much, because when she sent a film for David O. Selznick to watch when she was trying for the part of Scarlett she sent Fire Over England (an Elizabethan drama), where she was not the leading lady. But that was the film where she met and fell in love with Laurence Olivier, and perhaps she wanted to prove she could do costume dramas, too.

Also appearing in the film is Larry Adler as one of Charlie’s busker friends. I’d never heard of him before, but Larry Adler was a famous and magnificent harmonica player. I looked him up on youtube, and it is amazing the things he can do with that tiny instrument.

This article from the Toronto Film Society has more information about the actors in the film and about how the movie inspired a musical by the Sherman Brothers.

Here is another article, where I got much of my source material from, on Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

The trailer

An example of the amazing things Larry Adler can do on his harmonica. He is playing “Summertime” by George Gershwin, from the opera “Porgy and Bess” and talks about how he tries to mimic the sound of the human voice when he plays.

 
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Posted by on April 14, 2014 in Movies

 

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