Last night I watched on DVD the 1935 version of “Les Miserables” and what a magnificent movie it is.
Based on the towering literary classic by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables features two of the most unforgettable characters in literature, Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert.
In a sprawling narrative too complicated to get into, I will sum it up as quickly as possible: In early 19th century France, Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving family and a police Inspector, Javert, pursues him for the rest of his life, even after Valjean serves his 10 years in jail.
Fredric March plays Valjean and does a fine job as the essentially good hearted Valjean, but Charles Laughton steals the show as Javert, who follows the letter of the law to the nth degree, and does NOT temper justice with mercy.
The production design is superb, taking us through Valjean’s life from jail and convict ships to prominence and prestige, and everything in between.
It was fun spotting a very young John Carradine as a student agitator. Even though he was just starting his career in motion pictures (he’s listed last in the credit list at the end), there’s one scene where he is giving a firebrand speech and the lighting accentuates his gaunt features, much the way he would be lit in his later horror roles.
Speaking of horror, there’s a virtuoso sequence where Javert stealthily follows Valjean through the Paris sewers, and it’s a marvelous sequence. There’s no sound effects and the score is very off-beat and somewhat atonal, rare for a 1930s movie. The lighting and staging resembles a silent movie and that’s not meant as a dismissal. Several minutes long with no dialogue and it’s a stunning sequence. I liked the skulls dotting the sewerscape. Very effective.
It’s not a perfect movie. 20th Century Fox was a new studio at the time, barely a year old, so I’m not sure they had the production resources or capabilities to fully stage the student revolt shown here. It’s OK enough, but somewhat lacking in extras and movement.
Alfred Newman’s score is surprisingly minimal, but he overdoes it a bit with his use of the “Ave Maria” in certain scenes.
However, these minor quibbles aside, this is a marvelous presentation and the 108 minutes just fly by. Charles Laughton had reason to celebrate in 1935, between this, his famous portrayal of Captain Bligh in “Mutiny on the Bounty” and his English butler unwittingly transferred to the Old West in “Ruggles of Red Gap”, a well-remembered and loved-comedy.
Laughton would do well by Victor Hugo four years later, in his haunting portrayal of Quasimodo in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” arguably the best version of the story.
Fox’s recent DVD release of “Les Miserables” also offers the 1952 version with Michael Rennie, Robert Newton and Debra Paget, which I hope to watch soon.