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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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Singing, Acting and Les Miserables

anne-hathaway-new-les-miserables-postersSince the beginning of the American musical, actor/singers have never garnered the critical appreciation that they deserve, especially in film. Perhaps it’s a holdover from theater. Musicals on stage have always been considered lightweight compared to serious drama. Admittedly, many musicals are not serious, but it does not then follow that it is any easier to perform. How many people can act with their voice? It’s one thing to act with your body while singing adequately, but an entirely different thing to use your voice as the primary instrument of communication and still be visually compelling.

Though Anne Hathaway did win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Fantine in Les Miserables, which should have comforted me. I am always complaining about how it is not properly appreciated how difficult it is to star in a musical. Doris Day (how was she not nominated for Love Me or Leave Me?), Judy Garland (how did she not win for A Star is Born?), even Julie Andrews is not fully respected for Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Author Tom Santopietro observed in his book, The Sound of Music Story, how difficult the role of Maria is: to sing, to act, to dance, to make it all look natural, to bring so much joy into her performance without seeming cloying; it’s not easy. But it looked easy.

Perhaps that is why Anne Hathaway won. She looked like she was working at it.

Perhaps I just could not get over how Les Miserables sounded to appreciate anything else. The singing can best be described as an assault on the ears. There was much talk about making the musical more cinematic, but a musical is not purely a visual art. Sure, they’re acting. But the point of doing a musical is to express in song what you cannot express in words or even visually. It bugged me no end that Tom Hooper never really let his singers sing out (they spent a great deal of time whisper-singing or talky-singing) and that much of the time their voices were strained, off key and generally punctuated with sighs, tears, panting, sobs, grunts, pauses (the melodic line disappeared somewhere along the way), lip biting, saliva and facial contortions. One wonders, with so much visual acting going on, why they needed to sing at all, especially since their chief mode of communicating emotion through song was to break down and sob in the middle of it.

Many people have defended the film by citing its realism, but if you want realism so much, why make a musical?

But below are examples of woman who demonstrate what I mean about acting with their voices primarily, and still use their face and body language.

In 1954, Judy Garland starred in A Star is Born with James Mason. Mason is an alcoholic movie star whose career is fading. He discovers Garland, gets her career started, they fall in love and marry, only for her career to take off while his dies completely away. “The Man That Got Way” was written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. It is the first song that Mason hears her sing, which convinces him that she could be a star, but is also prescient of her future with him. Judy Garland was nominated for an Oscar and fully expected to win, but lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.

This performance really should be seen in conjunction with all the other songs Doris Day sings in Love Me or Leave Me, demonstrating how she’s come from hopeful and excited singer to jaded and world-weary. Her entire character arc is portrayed through her songs. Each song has some relevance to what she is doing, but also expresses her current mental and emotional state. She even makes love to another man through song when she cannot say it because she is married. “Ten Cents a Dance,” by Rodgers and Hart, song is simply fantastic: jaded, angry, fatalistic, defiant, world-weary. Singing was her character’s dream and this is what she’s come to, the words of the song accurately expressing a sense of violation by her husband, the gangster Marty (James Cagney, who was nominated for an Oscar). She should have at least been nominated!

Now here’s a woman who did win an Oscar with her singing. “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins is completely different from Love Me or Leave Me, but no less an example of unparalleled skill. Simple? A child’s song? Not expressing complex emotion? I defy anyone else to sing this song like Julie Andrews did or to move people more strongly. Her voice is so much a part of her, it’s as natural as talking, but infinitely more beautiful. Transcendent.

Even people who did not like Les Miserables admitted that Anne Hathaway was brilliant, laying bare her soul in a startlingly emotionally naked moment. And I don’t mean to disagree with that assessment. My complaint is that the camera is so close and her face is doing so much and her voice breaks down so often that I find that instead of actually listening to what she is singing, I am watching her face. It’s a matter of too much going on and the mind can only process so much. The words she sings become unimportant, even the song itself; it’s the emotion she’s expressing visually. To simply listen to the song without seeing her is not very compelling.

Perhaps it’s a new and perfectly valid hybrid of musical and visual art. After all, one cannot sit for three minutes and make faces unless there is a song to justify it. But the song definitely becomes secondary. And to be honest, it really is stressful for me to listen to people singing who aren’t quite making it: melodically choppy, so it never quite builds to that vocal emotional high point, vocally strained and unsupported and because of that, not always on pitch. It makes me tense up rather than let myself become submerged in what is being expressed.

Just for fun, here is Ruthie Henshall’s performance as Fantine from the 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables. As a vocal performance, it is stunning. I can hear the same pain in her voice that you can see in Anne Hathaway’s face.

Incidentally, “I Dreamed a Dream” occurs at a different place in the movie than it originally did in the musical. Anne Hathaway sings it after she’s slept with her first man as a prostitute and Ruthie Henshall is singing it after she’s been fired, but before she’s resorted to prostitution. She can still dream of the past, but know’s it’s not coming back.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Movies, Music

 

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