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Jean Valjean is convicted for stealing bread for his family. Thus is set in motion a lifetime of fear and pain, as the police inspector Javert pursues Valjean, hounding him relentlessly ... See full summary »
Jean Valjean, a Frenchman of good character and great strength, is convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, an act that sets in motion a lifetime of misery for Valjean, as he is pursued by the uncompromising and brutal lawman Javert. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Although you would not think so from reading some of the reviews here, the 1935 film version of "Les Miserables" is excellent and one of the best film versions of the novel, especially considering its 108 minute length. It is too much to ask a film that lasts a little less than two hours to pack in all the important incidents in a book that consists of more than 1,000 pages. No film has ever been able to do that, and three-hour American films, except for a couple of D.W. Griffith features, were virtually unheard of before 1936 (the year that "The Great Ziegfeld" was released).
Fredric March gives one of his finest performances as Jean Valjean---far better than Michael Rennie's pallid one in the 1952 remake-- and his voice reminds one not of Jimmy Stewart, but of John Barrymore, an actor to whom March was often compared to in his early days. Although he seems to be on the verge of overemoting once or twice, he can also be quite subtle and sardonic (just watch him in the scenes in which he implies that Javert has no idea of how to temper justice with mercy, or his performance in the scene in which he first meets Cosette at the inn). March, now virtually forgotten by today's younger generation, was easily one of the best actors of the twentieth century, whether on stage or screen, It is a pity that he never felt inclined to act in a Shakespeare play or film, a decision he himself came to regret.
Charles Laughton is equally as good as the vicious, single-minded, and in this version at least, neurotic Inspector Javert. Laughton's small touches, far from making his performance seem hammy, vividly illustrate the personality of a man so ashamed of his own parentage that he cannot bear to talk about it without seeming to be about to break into tears. If it had not been for his brilliant Captain Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty", released the same year as "Les Miserables", Laughton would almost certainly have been nominated for his performance as Javert.
John Beal and Rochelle Hudson are adequate as the lovers, although Beal is hardly anyone's idea of a sexy, dashing young man. Hudson's performance is infinitely preferable to the awful one given by the beautiful Debra Paget (best remembered as Joshua's love interest in "The Ten Commandments") in the 1952 remake of "Les Miserables". Eponine in this version is not portrayed as a prostitute, probably because of the censorship restrictions of that time, and Gavroche is completely eliminated from this version. Cedric Hardwicke, in a very small role, is fine if a little too syrupy, as the bishop who aids Valjean after he is released from prison.
The legendary Gregg Toland's photography is excellent, and the scenes in which Valjean serves in the galleys are frighteningly realistic for a major Hollywood film of this era (the scene in which March is beaten and begins screaming in pain is profoundly disturbing, and it recurrs later on in a nightmare).
The 1935 "Les Miserables" easily eclipses all later versions in English, and still stands as one of the best Hollywood versions of a literary masterpiece.
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