Thursday, March 26, 2015

Here We Go Again

Film: Les Miserables (1935)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve said for some time that my problem with the 2012 version of Les Miserables is that it’s a well-made version of a story that I don’t like that much. With me, though, there is always the danger that the reason I didn’t like this latest version is that it is a musical, and musicals are the genre I tend to be the hardest on. Tonight seemed a good chance to test this belief. The 1935 version of Les Miserables is essentially the same story (albeit a much shorter version) without all of the music and singing.

I’m not going to rehash the story here save the basics, but even the basics will take a few paragraphs. Jean Valjean (Fredric March) is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. For this crime, he is sent away for 10 years, overseen by the dictatorial Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton). Upon his release, he is shown kindness by a priest, and eventually recreates himself as a captain of industry under a pseudonym. In so doing, though, he violates his parole, making Jean Valjean a wanted criminal.

In his new life, Valjean is famously generous and charitable. However, he leaves on particular decision to a subordinate, which causes the firing of Fantine (Florence Eldridge). Out of guilt, Valjean takes in her daughter, Cosette (Marilyn Knowlden as a child, Rochelle Hudson as an adult). But Javert is never too far behind, and Valjean and Cosette are forced to flee, changing identities once again.

Eventually, Javert catches up with Jean Valjean just as two key events happen. The first is that Cosette falls in love with Marius (John Beal). The second is that Marius and a number of other students are protesting against the government for better treatment of prisoners, a protest that eventually became the June Rebellion, which would be completely forgotten if not for this story. In the course of the story, all hell breaks loose, the students fight the police, Cosette and Marius try to find each other, and Javert continues to pursue Jean Valjean.

So, was I right? Yes. This is a pretty good production of the story, although it is considerably shorter and much more to the point than the versions I am used to. But I really don’t like the story that is on offer here. That is not to say that it’s a complete waste of time. Some aspects of this version are quite good.

The good can be pretty much summed up in two words: Charles Laughton. In 1935, Laughton had one of the great years for an actor in history. In addition to this film, he also did Mutiny on the Bounty and Ruggles of Red Gap. Inspector Javert is very much in line with his performance of Bligh, and that’s the performance we get here. Laughton plays Javert as a man obsessed not with right or justice, but with law itself, without remorse or pity and without conscience. It’s a solid performance, the kind that would often get a nomination in other years, save for the fact that the man was nominated instead for Mutiny on the Bounty.

Oh, I suppose there are some other positives. We don’t deal with the innkeepers at all once Cosette is rescued, and that’s a good thing. We don’t get a lot of the student protest, either. There are one or two scenes involving the rebellion including a pretty good battle sequence, but that’s pretty much it. I’m okay with that, since the film does away with the entire revolutionary aspect of the protest in the first place.

It surprises me to say this, but the biggest issue I have with this film is that even though I don’t like the actual story, this version feels like short shrift. It moves so quickly at times and leaves out so much that it feels more or less sanitized. Valjean doesn’t rescue Fantine from the streets—he simply takes her in a day or two after letting her go. Her sickness is therefore unexplained—it just happens. Even the ending is cut off, leaving us in a position that almost certainly negates the epilogue in the original story.

But there it is. I can say it officially now without a single reservation. I dislike the story of Les Miserables, so I’m going to dislike pretty much any version of it that I see, music or no music. I don’t care about the student rebellion, I don’t care about the romance between Cosette and Marius. I want simply to be done with them and not have to deal with Jean Valjean or Inspector Javert anymore.

Why to watch Les Miserables: Same story, no bellowing Russell Crowe.
Why not to watch: It’s the same damn story.


  1. I watched this on Netflix Instant Watch a few months ago. It wasn't boring or anything but it also wasn't that great. The main thing I remember is that I was amazed that two of my favorite obscure 1930s actresses - Frances Drake and Rochelle Hudson - were in the same movie!

    This is my first exposure to Les Mis in any format. I've never seen any movie version. I've read a lot of the classics but somehow I've never read any Victor Hugo. I've never even read the Classics Illustrated comic book version.

    I suppose this story works best if you like quaint meandering 19th century novels. (Which I do! Dickens, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment are among my favorites. I'll tackle Les Mis the book some day.)

    1. I'm currently re-reading Dracula, which is one of my favorites from the rough era, although it's about 30 years the junior of Les Miserables. I'm not a huge fan of literature of the period in general, starting with most of the Romantic-era stuff (except Blake, who's awesome) through the early 20th century. As far as Dickens, goes, I'm constantly reminded when reading him that he was paid by the word.

      Most of the authors I like the best have been alive within my lifetime. There are a few obvious exceptions--Poe, Lovecraft, Orwell, and particularly Joseph Conrad.

  2. I liked this version more than the 2012 version, and part of that was that it didn't overstay its welcome. About 2 hours into the 2012 one, when yet another song started up, my thought was "just get on with it". And as you know, I tend to like musicals.

    I completely agree on Laughton. I will add to what you wrote by mentioning his first scene in the movie. He is a young recruit who it is discovered had a criminal for a parent. This would normally disqualify him from being a policeman, and he sees his whole life and all his hopes and dreams crumbling. He is playing a very young man and we see his lip start to quiver as he tries to keep his composure while his worst nightmare is coming true.

    To me, this humanized Javert and gave an explanation for why he is so relentless in enforcing the law. It's overcompensation for his own family's past and the near miss on him not being allowed to be a policeman. The 2012 version didn't have this scene.

    1. Yeah, I agree with your assessment of Javert. That scene is a good one, and shows just how good Laughton was in the role.

      I think I liked this one about the same as the 2012 version. The staging isn't nearly as grand, of course, but Laughton makes up for a lot of that.