Today is Tuesday, and we are publishing our first 100 New Code Films article of the week. The purpose of this series is to give me an outlet for reviewing American Breen Era (1934-1954) films which I watch for the first time. Whenever possible, I like to combine these reviews with blogathon entries by watching and reviewing films which relate to the topics. This is my first entry in the blogathon we are hosting here at PEPS beginning today, the Code Classics Blogathon.
Today’s topic is Les Misérables from 1935. I have wanted to watch this film for a few months. I had known about the famous musical version of this story, affectionately known as Les Mis, since I was five years old, when I sang “Castle on a Cloud,” young Cosette’s song, in a musical theater class. My sister and I discovered the rest of the musical when we listened to the soundtrack on YouTube a few months. Since then, we have enjoyed listening the 10th Anniversary Performance at the Royal Albert Hall as background music while doing other things. Thus, I was eager to see the Code version of this famous story. I decided to watch it and write about it for Bastille Day, France’s Independence Day on July 14. Since the holiday fell in our blogathon dedicated to Code literary adaptions, the timing was perfect. I watched this film on ok.ru on Sunday night.
A man is sentenced to ten years in prison for trying to steal a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving children. After ten hard years in the galleys, he is released with a yellow ticket for trying to escape. While trekking to the town where he must report for parole, he is shunned by everyone, denied the right to buy food and pay for lodging. Finally, on a rainy night, he goes to a bishop’s home, where the kind clergyman welcomes him in. The ex-convict steals the bishop’s silver plates but is caught. When the bishop says that he gave the silver to him as a present, the ex-convict is taught a valuable lesson about the importance of giving to others in life. He starts a new, honest life for himself, eventually owning a successful factory and becoming a mayor. However, ten years later, an inspector of police whom he recognizes from prison becomes a law enforcer under him, and he fears his secret may be discovered.
This movie stars Fredric March, Charles Laughton, and Rochelle Hudson. Supporting actors include Cedric Hardwicke, Frances Drake, John Beal, Florence Eldridge, and Jessie Ralph.
This movie was directed by Richard Boleslawski. It was produced by Darryl F. Zanuck with associate producers William Goetz and Raymond Griffith. The production company was 20th Century. The screenplay was written by W. P. Lipscomb, based on Victor Hugo’s famous novel of the same name. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Cinematography for Gregg Toland, Best Film Editing for Barbara McLean, and Best Assistant Director Eric Stacey. The National Board of Review listed it the fifth best film of the year.
This is a perfect Code film. I was so impressed by how the difficult topics in the book were handled in the film. Firstly, in the book, Fantine (Florence Eldridge), becomes a woman of the oldest profession after being fired from the factory, selling herself to support her young daughter, Cosette (Marilyn Knowlden). The explicit depiction of women of ill-repute was banned in Code films, so any depiction of them had to be very subtle. Fantine is not expressly stated to be a woman of ill-repute in the movie. However, when she visits the mayor to ask for help, her attire implies that she is disreputable. This is the brilliant subtlety of the Code, since it allows meaning to be imparted to more mature viewers while remaining vague to the immature. Also, the revolutionary activities of the Parisian students, including Marius (John Beal), is not dangerously inflammatory. Rather than attempting to overthrow the government, as in the film, these young men are just advocating prison reform. Although revolution was not forbidden in Code films, movies were discouraged from presenting situations which might inspire uprisings. I thought that the depiction of Javert (Charles Laughton), the antagonistic policeman, was also very correct. The law is never undermined, nor are the police in general made to look unreasonable or harsh. Javert is a single example of a merciless official. He is obviously a very disturbed person who struggles with a great inner conflict. The aspect which makes this truly a perfect Code film is the message of generosity and giving which is strong throughout, embodied by the silver candlesticks given to Jean Valjean (Fredric March) by Bishop Bienvenue (Cedric Hardwicke). As in many other perfect Code films, this Catholic clergyman adds some excellent compensating moral values to this movie. Surprisingly, the bishop speaks less religiously in this Code film than in the modern musical. Rather than blatantly advocating Catholicism, the bishop preaches general moral principles of giving rather than taking. He inspires Jean to be worthy of his trust by becoming a morally upstanding man. Later, nuns play an important part in the narrative. Although misery and suffering is depicted in this film, the ultimate tone is very uplifting.
I highly recommend this film. It was very enjoyable. The acting is excellent. Fredric March gave such a powerful, dynamic, dramatic performance in this movie. He transforms his character throughout the film, showing the different natures which Jean develops throughout the years. He goes from a hard ex-convict to a very sensitive and feeling gentleman. The most impressive part of Mr. March’s performance is when he plays Champmathieu, a man mistaken for Valjean. He looks and acts different enough in the role of his lookalike that one wonders if he is perhaps just a very similar looking actor. His slurred speech, addled sentences, and bedraggled appearance thoroughly create the impression of a dimwitted beggar. The other main character is Javert, the troubled policeman bent on the execution of the law. Charles Laughton brilliantly depicts an obsessed monomaniac who is so rigid about enforcing laws that he even imposes them on himself. Complete with quivering lips, he shows us how emotional and unstable Javert is with his subtle mannerisms. The actresses provide excellent contrast to these two men. Rochelle Hudson, whom I don’t believe I have seen in any other film, is a sweet and angelic grown Cosette. Frances Drake’s Eponine is much more world-wise, unafraid to tell Marius about her unrequited love for him. Fantine, Frederic March’s real wife, is very emotional and sympathetic as the woman who just wants to provide for her child. Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays a dramatic role in a pivotal moment of the film. Bishop Bienvenue is very serious but extremely generous, kind, and wise. I have only seen Sir Hardwicke in only one other film, as the evil Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). It was very nice to see him as a sympathetic character. The cinematography was excellent and very dynamic. This is a beautiful classic film.
For the Blogathon
This is my first entry in The Code Classics Blogathon, which we are hosting here at PEPS July 14-17 in honor of Code adaptions of classic literary works. I am reviewing the 1935 Les Misérables in honor of Bastille Day, the French holiday of liberation, and because it is the first Code version of one of the most famous French novels of all time. I really enjoyed this version of the story, finding it to have a subtle, sensitive beauty which differed greatly from the famous musical. In addition to the obvious lack of profanity, indecent costumes, vulgar lyrics, and questionable moral messages, there are story elements in which this version differs greatly from the play and Victor Hugo’s original novel.
While the original novel and many adaptions depict the lives of many people whose paths cross and intertwine over the course of twenty years or so, this film focuses specifically on Jean Valjean. It truly is the story of his life. This film’s format of presentation is unique in the fact that it is depicted in three distinct parts, the three sections of his life, which are rather like acts in a stage play. Because of this focus on Valjean, some other characters are changed, reduced, or eliminated completely.
One significant change in the plot was that the element of Cosette being Fantine’s illegitimate child was removed. Fantine never referred to her daughter’s father, and the girl said that her father was in heaven, implying that her parents were married but her father died rather than left her mother. This is obviously a Code-related change. One could say that Fantine herself got breened, resulting in the reduction of her part in the film.
The Thenardiers, greedy, ruthless in-keepers who keep Cosette for her mother, were significantly reduced. Madame Thenardier (Jane Kerr) only plays a part in one scene at the inn, and Monsieur Thenardier (Ferdinand Gottschalk) just walks by. Their negotiations with Jean regarding Cosette happen offscreen, and they are never seen after that. This is a big improvement from the depiction of these people in the play, at least. In the 10th Anniversary Performance, the Thenardiers are depicted as vulgar crooks who shamelessly rob their customers, insult each other, abuse an innocent little girl, demand a large payment for giving her up, mistreat their daughter, take advantage of the bloodshed in the revolution, and even rob the dead of possessions and gold tooth fillings! Despite these monstrous deeds, these despicable characters seem to be the audience’s favorite at the performance! The catchy but very vulgar “Master of the House” really rouses viewers, and Madame Thenardier is considered so hilarious that the audience bursts into applause and laughter when she first enters. The sympathy and fondness which is created for these horrible people is very disturbing, so it is good that, in this version, they are shown briefly and would not be likeable to anyone.
In the novel, Eponine is the daughter of the Thenadiers. That element is removed in this film. Also, she is not a grubby creature of the streets. She is the more refined secretary of the students’ reformation league. She is obviously more streetwise than Cosette, but she is not as slovenly as most versions of this character. As such, she thinks that she has a better chance for getting Marius. Gavroche, a street-smart urchin who was originally Eponine’s younger brother and is sometimes an unrelated but popular supporting character, is not included at all.
In the novel and most adaptations, the students are revolutionaries who actually want to overthrow the government. In this film, perhaps for Code-compliance or perhaps for artistic reasons, they were made reformers instead. They are just advocating reform in the prisons and fair sentences. Rather than primarily using violence, like rioting and military tactics, they begin with speeches in the parks and printing and promoting pamphlets. However, the conflict escalates to such a point that violent protests and riots break out in the streets, leading to the conflict at the barricade. Also, Marius was not originally a leader of the revolutionary students. He was just a casual member of the group, not even sure if he was in agreement at first. Enjoras was more of a leader. In this film, Marius is the leader of the group. Enjoras (John Carradine) is only seen briefly, making one speech. Ultimately, this film shows the American spirit of fighting tyranny and demanding liberty, yet it isn’t dangerous or inflammatory. This is a wonderful version of this story, considered by many to be the best Hollywood adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel ever made.
Happy Bastille Day!