Today is Friday, but I am publishing my second 100 New Code Films article a little earlier than usual this week. That is so that this article can coincide with the blogathon we are hosting here at PEPS, the Code Classics Blogathon, which lasts from July 14 to July 17. In all but four weeks this year, I am planning on watching and reviewing two American Breen Era (1934-1954) films in this series. Since these new movies can be any Code films I choose, I try to select movies which can fit blogathon topics. It is very convenient for our own blogathons as well as others’.
Today’s topic is Les Misérables from 1952. When I announced the Code Classics Blogathon, I decided that I wanted to contribute with a review of the Code version of Les Misérables, which was made in 1935 with Fredric March and Charles Laughton. I planned on reviewing a second new Code film for the blogathon, as well. I had almost decided on King Solomon’s Mines (1953), since this is one of only two Code adaptions of H. Rider Haggard novels of which I know. However, I then learned that Les Misérables was made into a Hollywood film a second time during the Breen Era. I then knew that I must watch and review the 1952 version of this famous story. I hope to watch King Solomon’s Mines some time soon. I watched this film for free on ok.ru a couple of nights ago.
A man is sentenced to ten years in prison for trying to steal a loaf of bread for his friend’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 seeks shelter from the police in 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 pottery business 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 Michael Rennie, Debra Paget, and Robert Newton. Supporting actors include Edmund Gwenn, Sylvia Sidney, Cameron Mitchell, James Robertson Justice, and Elsa Lanchester.
This movie was directed by Lewis Milestone. It was produced by Fred Kohlmar. The production company was 20th Century Fox. The screenplay was written by Richard Murphy, based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name.
This is a perfect Code film. I am happy to say that this film deserves this classification, as its 1935 predecessor also does. The original Victor Hugo contains many Code violations or elements which would be difficult to put into a Breen Era movie. One of the most difficult points is that, after she is fired from the factory, Fantine (Sylvia Sidney) becomes a woman of the oldest profession to support her daughter. In this film, it is not clearly stated that she is a woman of ill-repute. We see her walking down a staircase outside a tavern when a drunkard attacks her. He seems to know her, but his advances are obviously unwanted. She certainly does not seem to be soliciting his business. She is dressed in a rather disreputable manner, but she could just be very poor. She later refers to having to be “on the streets” because she was fired from the factory. I appreciate how subtle this situation is. Although the students are depicted as actual revolutionaries in this work, rather than just reformers, the situation is not presented in a way which is likely to inflame viewers. Also, Javert (Robert Newton) is depicted in a very proper way. He is not as neurotic as Charles Laughton’s depiction of the policeman, and thus not as despicable, since he seems more human. However, he still is ruthless and selfish enough to seem like a bad cop instead of a negative reflection of the whole police force.
I highly recommend this film. It is an excellent take on Les Misérables. Rather than a second adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel made during the American Breen Era, it really is a remake of the 1935 Code film. Twentieth Century Fox made both films, which follow a very similar pattern. Instead of a sweeping view of many characters whose lives cross, these movies focus specifically on the life of Jean Valjean (Michael Rennie), dividing his experiences into three sections. The remake is only three minutes shorter than its original. However, in virtually the same running time, the 1952 managed to include several incidents which were glossed over or eliminated entirely from the 1935. This was possible because other scenarios were implied or briefly treated instead of shown in detail. The acting is excellent in this movie. These actors’ characterizations of these famous roles are different than in the 1935 film but just as good. In some ways, this film and some of its characters are more similar to the Broadway musical and thus closer to what my sister and I are used to. Michael Rennie gives a powerful performance as Jean Valjean, undergoing a physical as well as emotional transformation. He is less angry when sentenced to prison than Fredric March, yet he grows more bitter. He is sterner throughout the film, although his love for Cosette and heart to do the right thing are always evident. Javert is the character who is the most different in these two films. While he is sniveling, machine-like, and very imbalanced as depicted by Charles Laughton, this Javert has developed confidence through his bad past and takes great pride in the position he has obtained. Rebekah and I both agreed that, while we prefer Fredric March’s Jean Valjean, we like Robert Newton’s Javert more. The beautiful Debra Paget is very sweet, dynamic, and dramatic as Cosette, playing the role throughout the film. Cameron Mitchell is not one of my favorite actors. However, I truly enjoyed his performance as Marius. Sylvia Sidney, a popular 1930s actress, gives a very vulnerable and sympathetic performance as the sickly Fantine. The lovable Edmund Gwenn plays the very important role of the bishop who helps Jean find the path of righteousness. While Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s interpretation of this role is equally effective in the story, Mr. Gwenn’s interpretation is warmer, as one would imagine this role might be. The cinematography is excellent and very effective. This work spends more time showing us French scenery, Paris, and the other backdrops for the tale. While the 1935 film focuses on creating gripping characters, this film presents a more colorful story.
For the Blogathon
This is my third and final entry in The Code Classics Blogathon, which PEPS is hosting as the highlight of #CleanMovieMonth2020. This is the month-long celebration of American Breen Era films which we host every July with slight variations. We always host a blogathon during the middle of the month, usually around July 15, which is the anniversary of the foundation of the Production Code Administration (PCA). I am glad that I decided to write about the two Code versions of Les Misérables for this event, since it gives me an excellent opportunity to compare these films with each other and with the original book and consider which changes were made for artistic reasons and which were made for Code compliance.
Jean Valjean is definitely the center of this story. His being a convict hounds him in a different way. Many people notice the collar marks on his neck soon after he is released from prison and thus identify him as an ex-convict. When we first see him in prison, he is depicted as almost illiterate but being educated by a fellow inmate, Genflou (Joseph Wiseman), who it seems was invented for this film. The way he begins is shown in this film, which it is not in the 1935 movie. He saves a wealthy man’s grandson and then, visiting his pottery shop with him, observes how it could be run more efficiently. Soon, he owns it and has made it so successful that it changed the whole town. Like Fredric March, he plays Valjean’s half-witted lookalike, Champmathieu, who is arrested when mistaken for him. I must say that I didn’t find Mr. Rennie’s performance in this part nearly as impressive. It wasn’t that he didn’t do a good job; I just wasn’t as impressed for some reason.
Javert is introduced differently in this film than in the 1935 film. Instead of first seeing him as he is groveling for permission to become a policeman, we first see him when he is already overseeing prisoners in the galleys. Instead of shamefully admitting his parents’ criminal past to police superiors, he proudly tells the convicts about his parentage to demonstrate how far he has come. He does not research the mayor’s past. However, he tells him about the capture of Jean Valjean with a look that suggests that he suspects who he really is. Once he spots Valjean again after years, he forgets all other duties in pursuit of him. This is an important message for Code compliance. He is not doing his duty. He is obsessed for personal reasons. He is not being a good policeman but an ideological man who can’t believe in the ability for rehabilitation.
In the 1935 film, we see a short depiction of Fantine being fired from the factory, but we don’t see anything of what happens to her until she barges into Jean’s office. In the 1952 film, we first see Fantine walking down the street and only learn about her time at the factory from her dialogue. We don’t know whether or not she was married to Cosette’s father. She hasn’t seen her daughter in years, but providing for Cosette is all that matters to her.
Cosette is usually played by two actresses, a little girl when she is first scene and a young lady after years pass. However, this is one of the first adaptations in which she is played by only one actress. Instead of being a little girl, she is supposed to be a budding maiden, perhaps fifteen, when we first meet her. Her mother is surprised to see how mature her daughter is. Her short stature made the eighteen-year-old Debra Paget convincing in the part. As she matures, she is very close to her foster father, Jean. However, I sensed that he felt more than just paternal love for her. This is addressed, since Marius accuses him of loving her and wanting her for himself. This might sound odd or inappropriate, but it is handled very properly. Jean does love her in a slightly romantic way, but it is not lustful or improper. He treats her just like a daughter. The inclusion of this element is obviously why she was made a young woman instead of a little girl when he first met her. Ultimately, Valjean just wants Cosette to be happy.
As in the 1935 film, Marius is the leader of the students’ revolutionary group. Enjolras, the leader from the novel, is not even featured in this version, although he could be one of the revolutionaries addressed only as “citizen.” While the students’ attempt is merely prison reform in the 1935 movie, this film makes it very clear that they are attempting to overthrow the tyrannical government. Cosette quotes treasonous remarks which Marius makes about the king. Instead of peacefully meeting Jean and Cosette in the park when giving a speech, Marius accidentally encounters Valjean after climbing into the convent where he works as gardener. Jean hides him in his cottage from the police who are pursuing him. When Cosette comes in, she tends his saber wound. After this, they fall in love. Instead of riots in the streets, there is the standard revolutionary uprising in the streets, complete with barricade and all. This was one of the most exciting parts of the film.
In the 1935 film, Eponine was changed from a street urchin to a secretary, and her parents, the Thenardiers, were reduced to one scene. In 1952 film, Eponine was removed completely, and the Thenardiers were never seen at all, since Jean fetched Cosette from the inn offscreen. In their place, however, Gavroche Thenardier, their young but street-smart son, was reinstated after being omitted from the 1935 film. He is played by Robert Hyatt. Whether the Thenardiers are his parents or not is irrelevant, since we never see them. All we know is that he is a smart, energetic, and clever little revolutionary who delivers messages between Marius and Cosette.
One of the most interesting supporting characters is Robert (James Robertson Justice), Jean Valjean’s partner in the pottery business. If the name doesn’t sound familiar, that’s because this was a second character created exclusively for this film. As played by Mr. Justice, this character is an interesting one. When he first meets Jean, he is obviously suspicious of him. He doesn’t like the way he is snooping around the pottery, inspecting and, in the process, destroying his wares. When he tells him to leave, they begin Indian wrestling. As they stare each other in the eyes, it is as much a battle of the wills as of strength. When Jean wins, he earns some respect from Robert. He earns even more when he boldly tells him that their wares are imperfect, each having a different weakness. His suggestion to have each man do what he does best makes them very successful. Once Robert considers the wisdom of this idea, they become successful business partners as well as good friends. Robert later confesses that he knew Jean was a convict as soon as he met him, seeing the collar mark on his neck. However, he respects him for the man he is.
Many people don’t like this film. True, it didn’t earn as much acclaim as its 1935 predecessor. I think that I do like the 1935 version a little bit more than this one. However, there are elements of this film which I really like, as well. Both Rebekah and I like it. Each film has something to offer. I think that you should do as we did and watch both versions. You will see similarities and differences. I’m sure that, like us, you will find things which you prefer in each version. If you are a fan of Les Misérables in any form, whether it be the book, the musical, or some other film version, you must watch these two movies. Vive la France!
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