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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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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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Movies As Inspiration

Poster - Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1939)_02I recently watched the 1939 movie adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. I was deeply impressed by the film, and Laughton and O’Hara’s performances, and I was moved to read the novel. I ordered it from the library and sat down to read the introduction, only to be met with an attack on the movie I had just watched that had led me to this introduction in the first place.

It wasn’t exactly an attack, but definitely a complaint. The writer contended that movie depictions of Quasimodo had so taken over the popular imagination that it put people off from reading the novel. This struck me as a trifle unfair, since I was only reading her complaint because I had seen the movie and never met a person who decided not to read a book because of a movie (though I do know a few people who didn’t watch a movie because of the book), though I suppose such people do exist. However, I cannot help but wonder if such people would not be reading the novel if there was a movie or not.

She further writes that “we often know just enough about great novels to dissuade us from reading them.” This is definitely true. For years I did not want to read Anna Karenina. I had some vague idea that it was about a woman wronged by society, unfairly condemned for her love and driven to suicide. This is not what the book is about, but I did not get that impression from a movie. Impressions about books come from a variety of sources. My impression came from general comments left in articles, books and critical essays and it was only when I heard there was a movie adaptation being made with Keira Knightly that my curiosity was piqued. When I read it, I was amazed at how interesting and rich the book was. Literary critics are partly to blame for this misconception. When I later read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretation), all the articles are exclusively about Anna (though Levin is just as important a character, not to mention the myriad other, fascinating people in the story) and how magnificent she is and how everyone else are just little people who fail her. This is definitely a skewed and biased view of the book.

marypoppinsSimilarly, I never had the slightest interest in The Hunchback of Notre Dame until I saw the movie. But this is an attack against movies I have encountered numerous times. I have read many complaints regarding the Mary Poppins movie; one man wrote of how people have told him they will not read the original Mary Poppins novels by P.L. Travers because they are not like the movie (though I read the book because I had seen the movie and know other people who did so for the same reason). And one grows weary of the phrase, “the book is always better than the movie.” The assumption seems to me to be that a movie is inevitably nothing more than a bowdlerization, simplification, distortion and dumbing down of a full and rich work.

This complaint also goes for history, as well. After watching the 1956 Anastasia, I went to the internet to read about the real Princess Anastasia and once again encountered complaints about how the movies distort history and give a fairy tale conception of life. I once read a scathing article about how Downton Abbey is not historically accurate. No review of a movie is complete without some sort of condescending remark about how movies ignore history or do not properly enforce reality.

Admittedly, because of movies, the popular conception of a novel or character or historical event can be skewed. As the writer of the introduction pointed out, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not really about Quasimodo at all, but about the city of Paris. But I believe that popular misconceptions do not exist only because of movies and it is incumbent on individuals to learn not to let their vague notions of novels (and history) have the last word. It’s a valuable lesson, but applies to all vague notions besides those attained from movies (Shakespeare is responsible for all sorts of inaccurate views of English history and kings). People write throwaway comments in history that reinforce inaccurate notions. Articles, blog posts, conversations, poetry, even novels, all reinforce notions that may or may not be correct.

But such complaints miss the point, I think. Movies are flavoring. As John Le Carre said, “Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” What he means is that all that is left is flavoring. And people know it when they see a film. A historical film gives you a flavor of what that historical time was like. If people want facts, they read history (not a historical novel). But the inspirational power of that flavor cannot be underestimated. It can make a time period or a subject or a novel come alive in your imagination or make a novel seem more accessible and less daunting.

MV5BMTU0NDgxNDg0NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjE4MzkwOA@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_One of the greatest powers that a movie possesses is the power of inspiration. The combination of the visual and aural is an irresistible one that creates unforgettable images and feelings and I have always found movies to be the source of many of my interests. They inspire me to read a novel or to read history or to remember an emotion or event or to become interested in early American popular music or to consider an idea. They become part of my mental map, sources that I draw on in discussion and life.

My library understands this concept and always capitalizes on the release of new movies in theaters. After the release of Twelve Years a Slave, the library bought the autobiography on which the movie was based. After the release of Imitation Game, the biography that inspired it showed up in the library catalog. After Anna Karenina, copies of the novel with pictures from the film filled the shelf. Movies and novels and history should have a symbiotic relationship, not an antagonistic one. Movies are not necessarily taking people away from books. They are an interpretation of books, like any work of literary criticism. And even if people didn’t have movies, I am not sure it’s fair to assume that people would therefore read more.

And I would argue that a movie no more skews perceptions of a novel or history than a novel or poem does of history and legend. This is what art does. It creates popular conceptions, something people have in common. And sometimes, when history is forgotten, we still have art. We know little historically of any siege of Troy, but Homer’s Iliad remains with us. I see no reason to assume that movies will be any less powerful an art form throughout time than poetry, paintings, symphonies or novels.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2015 in Movies

 

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