3.2. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables by Richard Boleslawski and Alfred Newman (USA, 1935)
Comparing this with the previous film is inevitable, but inappropriate. It is inevitable both because this version was released just one year after the other and because the former is French and the latter is North-American (this is the most stimulating comparison). It is inappropriate because Bernard made three films based on Les Misérables, whereas Boleslawski ‘bet’ only on one 105-minute film. That wager was not a winning one, though. Nonetheless, despite several elisions and arbitrary choices with respect to the original story, the result is acceptable from a cinematographic point of view.
The first episode of the film focuses on bishop Myriel – known also as M. Bienvenu – but it shows also images from Valjean’s imprisonment and Javert’s assignment, which reveals details of his past, too. The whole sequence takes 25 minutes out of the total 105. M. Bienvenu is well interpreted by the English actor Cedric Hardwicke who is also the youngest of the actors to have performed in that role in all the versions of Les Misérables I have seen, including those not listed here.87
87 While describing the bishop, Hugo says that he is “about sixty-five-years-old” (Victor Hugo, 1985, 23) [reference edition].
As Jean Valjean leaves the bishop’s house, he stops by a little statue of the Virgin Mary like those typically found at a crossroad on a mountain path. Then, he observes the two silver candle holders the bishop gave him as a present. The nostalgic music that accompanied Valjean since he left the bishop’s house is now complemented by a humming choir that soon explodes into a triumphal “Ave Maria” (thus, it seems to anticipate the pepla Hollywood would produce in the 1950s and 1960s). Now Valjean takes his hat off, kisses the statue and, finally, starts walking resolutely and steadily while the orchestra theatrically “plays” between the tonic and the dominant. Right after an intertitle says: “Thus ended the first phase of the life of Jean Valjean.” For the continuation to be worth of seeing one must rely on Javert’s wickedness…
Les Misérables, 1935
At any rate, I must admit that the film has a good pace and, all in all, it works, especially if the director does not excessively rely upon episodes like the one I have just described. Fortunately, music cues are less than those usually present in a U.S. film of that time. Of course, only a part of Hugo’s novel could fit in one film. In fact, the encounter between M. Madeleine and the little Cosette (Marilyn Knowlden) is quickly represented, the negotiation to free her from the grip of the Thénardier family having being cut off. Through editing one jumps from their entrance in the inn straight to M. Madeleine’s buggy driving Cosette back to her mother’s house. Although close to her death, Fantine feels an immense joy in hugging her daughter again. Her past as a prostitute is completely omitted, perhaps to avoid troubles with the censorship. In Florence Eldridge’s interpretation of Fantine there is a sense of constraint that, as I have already said, Bernard’s Fantine does not have. Instead, the tall and naturally noble Frederic March, despite his make-up as an Ecce Homo,88 is less a convincing prisoner than Baur. On the contrary, Baur is less a convincing M. Madeleine than March.
88 “Behold the man,” John 19:5, in Latin in the original text. As it is used here, it refers to the physical condition of Jesus Christ after his martyrdom. [EN]
Nonetheless, it seems that the essential episodes of Hugo’s novel were accurately selected. I am referring, for example, to Valjean saving a man under a cart and, thus, making Javert’s suspect grow deeper. There are no dialogs in this scene, but the camera repeatedly frames Javert/Charles Laughton’s face while M. Madeleine moves away on his buggy. The shots are very intense due to the facial expression and the look of the talented Laughton.
Despite my hope about Javert’s wickedness one cannot rely on it. He asks to talk privately and urgently to M. Madeleine to reveal him, as a childish pupil would do, that he reported him as Jean Valjean. However, the answer is that Jean Valjean is already in the police’s hands. This deeply upsets him and dissipates any doubts about Javert being first of all a victim of himself and of his really obtuse and blind faith in the application of the Law. One actually feels more pity rather than resentment toward him. Valjean and the spectators, though, must hold him some grudge when Javert addresses the ex M. Madeleine with bossy, intimidating and derisive words. Those hostile words are the last ones Fantine hears before dying. The event aggravates him so much that he jumps on Javert, chokes him and throws him in pain on the floor.
Now, while the gendarmes on horses persecute Valjean and Cosette’s buggy at night, North takes the chance to redeem himself from the dull music he composed to accompany Valjean’s quick conversion in front of the Virgin Mary’s little statue. The piece is intense, very agitated and well-orchestrated but, unfortunately, fades out with no musical logic at all: this is a symptom of the musical ignorance that most of US producers and directors suffered from. Composers like Newman had to silently endure the request of schmaltzy music. On the other hand, there is no doubt that North completely adhered to Hollywood’s taste since during his career (from 1938 to 1971, one year after his death) he won nine Academy Awards and was nominated twenty-four times!
Just after Valjean and Cosette, trying to pass themselves off as ‘father’ and ‘daughter,’ repair to a convent, the second, predictable intertitle shows up: “Thus ended the second phase in the life of Jean Valjean.” But there are still forty minutes before the film ends.
Les Misérables, 1935
The beginning of the third part is somewhat surprising: Valjean has aged slightly and Cosette is now an attractive girl. Unlike Bernard’s Cosette, Rochelle Hudson’s interpretation is neither doll-like nor contrived. Also Eponine is different: in Bernard’s film she (Orane Demazis) was mildly attractive and quite reserved, here, instead, she (Frances Drake) is both more vulgar and attractive. The barricade’s episode is preserved but, possibly to make it short, acts only as a backdrop to Valjean’s rescue of Marius (John Beal). Finally, the episode about Javert’s suicide is hurried as in Bernard’s film, but its development is clearer. However, it is precisely in this episode where the most blatant modes and the most inappropriate juxtapositions are more patent: on the road back to prison Jean Valjean thinks of God and the humming choir comes in again. The excerpt is shorter and quickly bursts into the invocation “Santa Maria” that coincides with the shot of Javert’s legs while he is about to commit suicide. Is it an atoning suicide? Perhaps…, but what has “Santa Maria” got to do with it? Yet, there is more after this very tasteless audiovisual juxtaposition: once Valjean reaches the place where Javert committed suicide, he observes first the ripples on the water’s surface and then, while the image is about to fade out, he calms down, looks up to the sky as if he were thinking: “Thank God for this suicide.”
DVD dal romanzo di Victor Hugo.
Edizione due dischi.
[It contains two different films, one for each DVD.
See further on about the 1952 I Miserabili directed by Lewis Milestone].
I Miserabili (1935) in lingua originale.
Lingue: Inglese, Stereo.
Sottotitoli: Italiano, Inglese, Francese, Olandese.
Menu: Italiano, Inglese, Francese, Olandese.
Durata: 105 minuti circa – B/N.
Presentato in 1.33.1.
Zona: 2 PAL – © 1935, Revised 1983.
Frame: Full Frame 4.3.
DVD9 – singola faccia – doppio strato.
20th Century Fox, F1 SITS 56087DE (2013).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.