« Les Misérables »
It is an affirmation of the timeless quality of "Les Miserables" that the magnificent film edition of Victor Hugo's nineteenth century classic bears the hallmark of Twentieth Century Pictures. Despite its costumed surfaces, this odyssey of the greatest man hunt in literature possesses a topical significance in 1935 as real and moving as it did in 1862, and it is as undated as man's inhumanity to man. The underground reports from Hollywood are often capricious, but they have not deceived us this time. The photoplay at the Rivoli Theatre is unbelievably thrilling in all the departments of its manufacture, and it makes for a memorable experience in the cinema. You will surely be hearing about it for a long time.
In a work which represents the perfect collaboration of many talents, it is difficult to award the laurel adequately. But we can come pretty close by applauding Richard Boleslawski for his direction, Gregg Toland for his remarkable photography, W. P. Lipscomb for a screen play wich is a model of telescopic rewriting and the distinguished performances of Fredric March and Charles Laughton.
Despite the rich kaleidoscopic variety of the drama, it is always at bottom the story of the hunted and the hunter - of Valjean, the tragic and eternally defeated man, and Javert, the eternal policeman, who had to pursue his quarry down the nights and down the days, and even down the labyrinthine ways of his own mind, because the law was his religion, his blood and his life. It is one of the great merits of Mr. Lipscomb's screen play that it brings Valjean and Javert down to the end of the story together, eliminating the anticlimax of Valjean's death. Thus the drama fades out powerfully with Valjean free at last, and Javert a suicide in the near-by Seine for the sin of mercy, for which he could atone only by forfeiting his own life.
If your memory is as bad as mine, you will not resent being reminded that the lifetime purgatory of Jean Valjean began when he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister's starving family. For that breach of the law in the France of 1800 he was comdemned to the galleys for ten years (it was five in the book). His penalty was increased because of his rebellious conduct, and when he was turned loose, theoretically a free man, he found his independence a cruel mockery because every one's hand was turned against him. The Bishop Bienvenu alone sheltered him. When Valjean made off with the good man's silverware and was dragged back by the police the bishop saved the wretched Valjean from another spell in the galleys by pretending that the theft actually was a gift. Valjean never forgot the bishop's kindness. In the years that followed, although he became a sainted man out of his sufferings, the implacable Javert tracked him down, uprooted him, sent him fleeing. Even when Valjean spared his enemy's life on the barricades, Javert pursued him, because the pursuit was a disease in him which only death could conquer.
Charles Laughton is an actor of such brilliant range that it is foolhardy to estimate any single performance of his in relation to ones which have gone before. But his Javert, the cropped head, the hideous trembling of the lips, the relentless monotone of his behaviour, is one of the great screen portraits. After "Les Miserables" has been nationally circulated, the chances are that Mr. Laughton will not be safe on the streets. Mr. March's Valjean is a flawless thing, strong and heartbreaking. It reveals Mr. March as a screen player of enormous resource when, as on this occasion, he is properly cast. There are numerous minor performances of note, chief among them being Sir Cedric Hardwicke's as the Bishop Bienvenu, Florence Eldridge's as the tragic Fantine, and little Marilynne Knowlden's as Fantine's child. "Les Miserables" bulks impressively among the most notable contributions to the talking screen and it is sure to be remembered when the time comes to appraise the 1935 cinema. It deserves to run for months at the Rivoli. André Sennwald