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Les Miserables (1952)

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.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2017 in Movies

 

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Anne of Green Gables (1934)

anne_of_greenThe Anne of Green Gables film that was released in 1934 is definitely not for purists. The author herself, L.M. Montgomery, said it was not her book at all. However, the film has a lot of charm and I thoroughly enjoyed it. And considering that the film is only 78 minutes long, it’s actually a pretty fair adaptation.

Anne of Green Gables is one of those stories that rarely needs an introduction. It’s like Little Women – Anne Shirley has a life of her own, just as Jo March does. L.M. Montgomery wrote the novel in 1908 and the book has had many adaptations – including during the silent era in 1919.

One year after releasing Little Women with Katharine Hepburn, RKO bought the rights to Anne of Green Gables and cast Dawn O’Day, a child actress who subsequently changed her name to Anne Shirley (and who I still associate with Stella Dallas and Murder, My Sweet).

Because the film is so short, the story becomes less about the life of Anne Shirley at Green Gables and more about her adoption, how she becomes part of the family and finds a home at Green Gables. Even Gilbert Blythe kind of ends up adopted at the end of the film.

The film begins fairly faithfully with Matthew Cuthbert (O.P. Heggie) and Marilla Cuthbert (Helen Westley) attempting to adopt a boy. They are sent a girl, however, who instantly captures the heart of the taciturn Matthew. Marilla takes a little longer to warm up, but you can tell she is more charmed than she lets on. Helen Westley does not look like L.M. Montgomery’s description of the angular Marilla, but there are few people who play a formidable curmudgeon with a warm heart better than Westley (I always liked her in Show Boat, too).

The actress Anne Shirley was sixteen years of age when she made the film and is suitably passionate, chatty, and imaginative. Gilbert Blythe (Tom Brown) seems little on the pipsqueak side of things, especially when the characters are supposed to be old enough to marry. It is definitely easier for an adolescent female actor to play an adult than it is an adolescent male actor.

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Helen Westley and Anne Shirley

The film is actually a compression of several books and even compresses some characters. Diana’s mother, Mrs. Barry, also becomes the nosy neighbor who says Anne is an unattractive child. The film, then covers Anne’s arrival to Green Gables and how she becomes part of the home and also her feud and romance with Gilbert Blythe and Marilla’s disapproval of Gilbert and Anne’s conflicting love of Marilla and Matthew and of Gilbert.

Spoiler Alert: Matthew even gets to live in the film (though I kept expecting him to die), but once again it actually makes sense in the context of the film. By the end, Anne gets Gilbert and Matthew and Marilla will have both Anne and Gilbert. Adoption and reconciliation.  End Spoiler.

Because the location of Prince Edward Island is so important to the book (and beautifully part of the 1985 series), the film is not as stage bound as many films made in 1934. It’s not Canada, but some scenes are filmed outside on occasion and helps provide that sense of a breath of fresh air which is so a part of both Anne’s character and the story.

As I said, devoted fans of the book (and of the 1985 series) might be a bit irked by this film, but I particularly liked the emphasis placed on adoption, mutual gratitude, and love. It makes for a sweet film. It also makes me want to go back and watch the 1985 film (and 1987 Anne of Avonlea – did you know Wendy Hiller was in that film? I am a huge Wendy Hiller fan, but the last time I saw Anne of Avonlea, I had no idea who she was ).

This was part of the “O Canada Blogathon,” hosted by SpeakeasySilver Screenings. Be sure to check out the recaps for days 1,2, and 3 for most posts.

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Posted by on February 3, 2017 in Movies

 

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Madame Bovary (1949)

220px-madamebovarymovieposterMadame Bovary is one of those classic novels I’ve been meaning to read for a long time, along with watching the 1949 film adaptation of it, so when Love Letters to Old Hollywood announced the “Vincente Minnelli Blogathon,” I was quite excited to see the film and read the book (though I haven’t actually read the book yet).

Vincente Minnelli is one of those directors I am always aware of enjoying, even though I am not as good at observing the distinctive style or techniques of a director. I associate him with musicals (The Band Wagon being one of those movies I never tire of seeing), but he also did comedies and dramas and, in the case of Madame Bovary, costume dramas.

Madame Bovary is adapted from the novel by Gustave Flaubert and is set during the mid 1800s. Emma Bovary (Jennifer Jones) is the daughter of a farmer, who grew up on romantic literature much in the way Don Quixote gorged himself on chivalrous adventures. She fully expects life to be a romance, to be beautiful, and when she first meets the doctor, Charles Bovary (Van Heflin), she assumes he is her knight in shining armor, so to speak, even though Charles warns her that he is not a very exciting person and only an adequate doctor who will never rise in the world.

But married life inevitably disappoints. Everything inevitably disappoints her, including motherhood. Charles adores his wife, but cannot figure out how to make her happy. Emma increasingly tries to achieve her illusive dreams of beauty and romance and all the while increasingly digs a hole for herself and her family, leading to tragedy.

It was hard for me not to come away with the impression that Emma Bovary is essentially a silly woman. Not a pragmatist like Scarlett O’Hara, she lacks her grit. She also lacks cleverness. My understanding is that this is not radically different from Flaubert’s portrayal in the book, though. She makes Anna Karenina look wise by comparison.

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Vincente Minnelli directing Louis Jourdan and Jennifer Jones

Because of the book is (I’m getting this from hearsay) about her desire for something extraordinary in a very un-extraordinary world, I also couldn’t help wondering if MGM was maybe the wrong studio to make this film. The film looks a bit too pretty, too picturesque and charming. It tends to work against our sympathy with Emma. Flaubert is noted for his realism, which is not something MGM was noted for. Having said that, however, Vincente Minnelli does some beautiful things in the film.

The most famous scene is the ballroom scene, where Emma and Charles have been invited to the Marquis D’Andervilliers’ house. Charles is clearly out of place, but Emma is in her element. It is the high point for her, where she has temporarily achieved her dreams, the Cinderella at the ball with Louis Jourdan’s Rodolphe Boulanger as the prince charming. The way Vincente Minnelli films it, it is a delirious dance, spinning around so that the audience feels every bit as dizzy, dazzled and disoriented as Emma does.

I also liked Minnelli’s use of mirrors. Emma sees herself in the gilded mirror at the ball, surrounded by admiring men. In a later seen, having a tryst with a humble clerk living well above his means, Leon Dupuis (Alf Kjellin), who is also madly in love with her, she looks at the cracked mirror in her cheap hotel and wonders how she came so low. She views herself through mirrors, it seems, as she appears in her surroundings rather than who she really is as a person.

Another moment that stood out to me was when Rodolphe Boulanger is attempting to seduce her at the local fair. They are inside a building while just outside the windows, speeches are being made about agriculture. Rodolphe speaks words of love and the speaker calls out for more manure. It was the most striking examples of the mismatch between her romantic illusions and reality.

This movies seems to have reminded me of a lot of different movies and books, because I also couldn’t help comparing it to Letter From An Unknown Women, which also stars Louis Jourdan as a womanizer. The leading lady (played by Joan Fontaine) also entertains romantic illusions that are out of step with reality, though in the case of Letter From An Unknown Woman, her illusions are centered on one man rather than a more inchoate future. Emma’s dreams don’t require any particular person

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Jennifer Jones, Louis Jourdan, Van Heflin

I also have to say a word about Emma’s wardrobe. Perhaps symbolic of her dreams, her wardrobe always seems to be out of all proportion to her surroundings. I kept wondering how her husband was affording it. As it turns out, he wasn’t and her inability to pay for her clothes turns out to be very important in the plot as she falls prey to a predatory draper, which precipitates her ruin. But when Charles first sees her in her humble farm house, she is festooned with ruffles and bows and whatnot. She looks like a lady in waiting deigning to visit her humble tenants.

Because the story of Madame Bovary is about an adulterous woman, there were some objections made by the Production Code. To make the story acceptable, . Gustave Flaubert’s real-life obscenity trial was used as a framing story. James Mason plays Flaubert and explains to the court how his story is true to life and also quite moral. The result of his narration means that the film is given a slant towards blaming the creators of romantic literature and expectations for her fall…rather like Cervantes does in the first half of Don Quixote. It has made me very curious about the novel and what the differences are.

Thanks so much to Love Letters to Old Hollywood for hosting! For more posts on Vincent Minnelli, be sure to check out “The Vincente Minnelli Blogathon.”

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Posted by on December 16, 2016 in Movies

 

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