Nov. 15, 2009
Les Miserables (1935)
Grade: 81/100

Director: Richard Boleslawski
Stars: Fredric March, Charles Laughton, Rochelle Hudson

What it's about. Based on the enormous classic novel by French novelist Victor Hugo, and set in France during the initial decades of the 1800s. As the film begins, Jean Valjean (Fredric March), a desperately poor peasant, is sentenced to ten years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread.

Valjean toils as a galley slave in deplorable conditions. One of the guards is Javert (Charles Laughton), whose parents were criminals. To expiate the guilt and inferiority he feels, and to escape the lower class, he becomes a ruthless enforcer of the law.

Jean is eventually paroled, but his passport identifies him as a criminal. Unable to find work or lodging, he again steals, this time from a kindly priest (Cedric Hardwicke). Jean is apprehended for the crime, but the priest denies his culpability. Jean remains free, and embraces the priest's exhortation to "give."

Jean changes his identity, and somehow manages to become a successful factory owner, beloved by his employees. He is pressed into becoming mayor of his village, but as bad luck would have it, Javert is assigned as local inspector. Javert increasingly suspects Jean, who is eventually forced to go into hiding, along with his adopted daughter Cosette (played as a child by Marilyn Knowlden, and as a grown hottie by Rochelle Hudson).

Once again, Jean somehow rises from the status of a humble gardener into a wealthy man. Inevitably, Javert tracks him down again, just in time to further complicate a love triangle involving the aristocratic Cosette, revolutionary Marius (John Beal), and working class woman Eponine (Frances Drake). Although Jean would rather keep gorgeous Cosette for himself, he risks his life to rescue Marius from danger. This leads to final confrontations between Jean and the pesky Javert.

How others will see it. There seem to be two schools of thought involving this film. One view is that this two hour Hollywood movie cannot begin to reveal the rich greatness of the magnificent French cultural treasure of Hugo's thousand-plus page novel.

Another, more practical view is that the book is available for anyone to read, anytime, over the internet. If it is the book you want, by all means read it. But as Hollywood adaptations go, this one is first rate. Although fairly obscure today, it was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Cinematography (Gregg Toland). It also has two "A" list actors in March and Laughton, and they do not disappoint.

Women like it much less than men do. Over age 45, the gender gap becomes remarkably wide, 7.8 for men and 6.1 for women. Possibly, women are annoyed that the only sizeable female role is that of Cosette, a demure stereotype so "in love" with her radical loser fiance that she jeopardizes her doting father's life and liberty.

How I felt about it. I have not read the Victor Hugo masterwork. In any event, this 1935 version is highly enjoyable, and filled with many interesting scenes. There's the odd moment where Jean practically admits to Cosette that his platonic love for her is not parental in origin. The galley slave scenes are enthralling (we recommend all parolees immediately shave their scraggly, tell-tale beards). Laughton makes many shifty and furtive faces, and first-billed March exudes full righteous glory throughout.

Major credit goes to two parties: director Richard Boleslawski, who unluckily died while still in his forties, less than two years later; and 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who always had a way with action-laden period pieces (see also The Mark of Zorro).