Miserable is the best way I can describe my experience the one and only time I saw the musical LES MISERABLES (English translation The Wretched) at the Schubert Theater back in 1989. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I were going to see the musical on a Saturday night. I was taking the Assistant Director's test that morning to try to get into the Director's Guild. A friend of mine Lee was also taking the test. I picked him up and we drove down to USC to take the exam. I had a suit and dress shirt to change into later that night and instead of putting it in the trunk, I left it hanging full view in the backseat. When I returned from the test that afternoon, my suit was gone. Either Lee or I forgot to lock one side of the car. It was too late to return to my apartment so I drove out to the San Fernando Valley with nothing to wear for the play. I ended up borrowing my future mother-in-law's only shirt with lapels that looked semi-masculine. The entire time during LES MISERABLES I moped about my wardrobe that I couldn't enjoy the musical.
What I do remember from that miserable night was that the musical LES MISERABLES was sad and downbeat. Just when you thought the good guy Valjean was going to enjoy life, his nemesis Inspector Javert would show up again, hounding him. The songs were depressing. I was depressed. Some stranger in Los Angeles was wearing my suit. So I was mildly excited when the recent movie version of the Musical LES MISERABLES (2012) came out to see what I missed while in my funk that night at the Schubert Theater. Even with bigger stars (Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe) and a better understanding of French author Victor Hugo's sprawling story written in 1862, I still found LES MISERABLES the Musical depressing and not very uplifting. Now don't get me wrong. I love a good depressing film (like James Gray's 1994 gangster film LITTLE ODESSA or Robert DeNiro's 2006 CIA film THE GOOD SHEPHERD). Maybe it was just the Musical LES MISERABLES was throwing me off.
So to give Hugo's story another chance, I decided to go back and watch a straight cinematic adaption of his story this time the 1935 version of LES MISERABLES. Studios were adapting all the classic novels into film in the 1930's. LOST HORIZON, GONE WITH THE WIND, GREAT EXPECTATIONS, ANNA KARENINA, and yes, LES MISERABLES. They may have had to steer clear of any controversial subject matter that was in these novels but I think the studios and film makers did a fantastic job of condensing these complex novels into entertaining fare. I'm glad I gave LES MISERABLES another chance. Directed by Richard Boleslawski and adapted by W.P. Lipscomb, this definitive version tells the literary story straightforward (with no singing), hitting all the dramatic points but with a more hopeful ending.
LES MISERABLES is Victor Hugo's manifesto on injustice, including France's prison system and the treatment of convicts after serving their sentences. It begins in Faverolles, France in 1800 with Jean Valjean (Frederic March) getting sent to the galleys for ten years for stealing a loaf of bread for his hungry sister and her children. Joining Valjean on the ship is Inspector Rene Javert (Charles Laughton), a zealously obedient servant of the law. Valjean will endure brutality on the galleys, becoming a hard man when he's released ten years later. Unable to land a job or even find a place to sleep, Valjean find life unforgiving for an ex-convict. He finds shelter at the church of Bishop Bienvenu (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). With only 109 francs to his name, Valjean cannot resist stealing the Bishop's silver. The local authorities catch Valjean and bring him back to the church. However, the Bishop lies to the police, telling them he gave Valjean the silver and asks why Valjean didn't take the candlesticks as well. The Bishop makes Valjean promise him one thing. "Life is to give, not to take." This generosity will change Valjean's life and send him in a new direction.
We move forward several years and Valjean has a new identity and life as Monsieur Madeleine, a respected business man running a successful factory, employing many workers. The town loves him so much they make him mayor as well. But Valjean's past returns to haunt him when Javert shows up to his town as the new Inspector Police to the District bent on upholding the letter of the law. When Valjean lifts a cart off an injured man, Javert begins to suspect he's seen this mayor before. Unknown to Valjean, a young worker from his factory Fantine (Florence Eldridge, Mrs. Frederic March in real life) is let go from the factory because she's pregnant. Fantine gives birth to a girl, naming her Cosette. Fantine gives up Cosette to adoption but blames Valjean for getting her fired from her job and losing Cosette. Valjean promises to find Cosette and return her to Fantine.
Valjean travels to the inn Le Brave Sergeant and rescues little Cosette (Marilyn Knowlden) from greedy innkeeper Madame Thenardier (Jane Kerr). But Cosette's reunion with Fantine is short-lived as Fantine becomes ill and dies. With Javert once again in pursuit of prisoner 2906, Valjean and Cosette pack up and head for the outskirts of Paris. Valjean leaves Cosette with the sisters at a convent, making a donation so they may raise and educate her. Several years pass. Valjean works near the convent as a gardener, keeping an eye on the now grown up Cosette (Rochelle Hudson). After Cosette is confirmed, Valjean takes her from the convent and they move to the city. It's 1832. Cosette falls in love with a young student Marius (John Beal) who's part of a group of revolutionaries called the Students Society Law Reform protesting government injustice and inhuman treatment of prisoners. Marius's secretary Eponine (Frances Drake) is also in love with Marius.
Once again, Javert shows up in Paris, this time working with the French government investigating the student uprising. Javert follows Marius and sees him with Cosette. Javert plans to use Cosette as bait to arrest Marius. Valjean recognizes Javert spying on Cosette and makes arrangements for both of them to go to England. Cosette tries to get a letter to Marius with their plans but Eponine intercepts it. The students and soldiers begin fighting in the streets of Paris in what is known as the June Rebellion. Marius and his fellow students are trapped by the police in a blind alley. Valjean promises Cosette he'll rescue Marius. Javert follows him. The students grab Javert and prepare to hang him but Valjean stops them, saving Javert's life. This act of mercy destroys Javert who will jump off a bridge, destroyed by Valjean's act of kindness. Valjean carries a beaten Marius through the sewers of Paris to bring him back to his beloved Cosette.
Jean Valjean and Inspector Rene Javert are one of the great adversarial duos in literature rivaling Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Moriarty. This LES MISERABLES reveals plot points that I missed in the Musical and may not have been presented. The biggest surprise comes early in the film when we learn Inspector Javert was turned down for a promotion previously because his mother was a tramp and his father a convict who died in prison. Javert was even born in prison. Javert's lip quivers as his superior reads Javert's file aloud. This back story (which would make an incredible prequel all its own) explains Javert's obsession with Valjean. Valjean reminds Javert of his father. And, just as Javert climbed out of the gutter to become a policeman, he despises Valjean for turning his pitiful life around as well to become a successful businessman and mayor, loved by the community. At LES MISERABLES finale, Valjean doesn't need to physically shoot Javert as he points a pistol at him. He kills him with kindness, by letting him live. It drives Javert to jump off a bridge to his death.
Eponine is by far my most favorite character in the LES MISERABLE universe. In the Musical (and I assume the novel), she's much more prominent. She's the daughter of the innkeepers the Thenardier's. But in this LES MISERABLES, she's almost a bit player yet I find her fascinating. In this version, she's not related to the Thenardier's at all or the film never shows us that connection. She is Marius's secretary and also in love with him. But Marius ignores her. To Marius, she's just one of the guys. Eponine is the female version of Valjean. She's jealous of Cosette yet so in love with Marius, she takes up the movie's mantra "to give" by revealing to Marius that Cosette is still in Paris as the fighting grows between students and the soldiers. Eponine even takes a bullet for Marius, so that he can live to love his true love Cosette. She makes as great a sacrifice as Valjean does.
Just like their dynamic characters in the film, actors Frederic March (Valjean) and Charles Laughton (Javert) were at the top of their game in LES MISERABLES. March is the perfect choice as the tormented Valjean having played the equally anguished Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde) in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932). March seemed to thrive in films where his characters underwent a transformation. In LES MISERABLES, he goes from barely recognizable in thick beard and scraggly long hair in the first act to a more refined, well-dressed businessman in the rest of the film. Laughton steals almost every scene in LES MISERABLE. Javert will always be Laughton's role in my opinion with his thick jowls and pursed lips and obsessive adherence to rules. "Right or wrong, the law is the law and it must be obeyed to the letter." As good as Geoffrey Rush and Russell Crowe might be as recent film Javert's, they've got nothing on Laughton. Laughton would have an amazing run in the 30's playing larger than life characters like Dr. Moreau in THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1932), Henry VIII in THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY THE VIII (1933), Captain Bligh in MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935), and the Dutch painter Rembrandt in REMBRANDT (1936). Laughton would even play another noteworthy character from another Victor Hugo novel as Quasimodo, the deformed bell ringer in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939).
Although the rest of the cast in LES MISERABLES are exemplary, the two supporting actors that really stood out for me are Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Bishop Bienvenu and Frances Drake as Eponine, Marius's unrequited love. The Bishop is a droll, mischievous man who enjoys thumbing his nose at both the police and his own servants. Only because of the Bishop's kindness does Valjean get a second chance. Hardwicke plays the Bishop to perfection, giving him both humanity and humor. The dark-haired Frances Drake is far more interesting and beautiful as Eponine than either the characters of Fantine or Cosette. Eponine seems to be Drake's one juicy dramatic role as she would play the female lead in several horror films of the 30's including THE INVISIBLE RAY (1936) and the minor horror classic MAD LOVE (1935) co-starring Peter Lorre. The one other notable actor to mention is the brief appearance of the young John Carradine as Enjolras, one of Marius's student friends. Carradine would go on to act in over 300 films and television shows. He is the father of actors Keith, David, and Robert Carradine. Although he has one brief scene in LES MISERABLES, he makes it count.
I had never heard of director Richard Boleslawski before watching his LES MISERABLES but he has a great grasp on Hugo's story, moving the story along at a good clip. His staging of the fight between students and the French soldiers is well-staged using 20th Century Fox's backlot as is Valjean's escape with the wounded Marius through the underground sewers of Paris. Director Boleslawski uses imagery to great effect in LES MISERABLES. He shows the two silver candlesticks often, reminding both Valjean and the audience that they represent Valjean's past and his promise to the Bishop to give to society and not take. The candlesticks become good luck for Valjean. Javert is represented by handcuffs, a symbol of justice. As Javert struggles to comprehend Valjean's acts of kindness toward him, one of the most powerful moments in the film is after Valjean has said goodbye to Cosette and Marius, he steps out of the apartment to turn himself in to Javert and lying on the street are Javert's empty handcuffs.
Director Boleslawski had the good fortune of having Gregg Toland (CITIZEN KANE, GRAPES OF WRATH) as his cinematographer on LES MISERABLES. Toland is a master with black and white photography. One reason I may not have known much about Polish born Boleslawski is that he died two years later in 1937 at the age of 47. He hadn't had the chance to direct many films. LES MISERABLES was definitely his most high visible project. Ironically, Toland would also die at an earlier age, only 44 years old in 1948, another talent who's flame went out too early.
Although Broadway Musical versions of novels or films can bring a new audience to an established story and turn a familiar story into something different, liberties are always taken with the original source. I much rather prefer LES MISERABLES the non-musical to LES MISERABLES, the Musical. The story was much clearer to me, the characters motivations made more sense, and I wasn't as saddened by the story because there weren't any depressing songs in this 1935 version. Now that I know the original story better, dare I try to watch the Musical LES MISERABLES one more time? Or should I go see THE LION KING or THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA instead?