« Les Misérables »
20th Century -production and United Artists release. Stars Fredric March, Charles Laughton: features Cedric Hardwicke Directed by Richard Boleslawski. […]
”Les Miserables” is both a “prestige” picture and a potential box office smash. A remarkable screen tabloidization, it will satisfy the most exacting Victor Hugo followers, and at the same time please these looking only for entertaiment regardless of literary backgrounds.
So much splendid effort has apparently gone into the production, it would be difficult to pin responsibility; but the first bow perhaps is rated by W. P. Lipscomb for his adaptation, which gave the producer as fine and faithful a rewrite as has yet been performed on a classic, and without which so excellent a picture would not have been possible. With an inspirational script to work on, the production and acting departments completed the job in commendable fashion.
The task of boiling down the lengthy Hugo novel was accomplished by Lipscomb with no loss of flavor. The essence of the original was faithfully retained. Where the book is voluminous yet gripping, the film is quick but equally gripping, and the high pressure excitement that permeates the one is carried over intact into the other. Lipscomb with a single line, Fredric March and Charles Laughton with a gesture, and Director Richard Boleslawski with a piece of business that lasts but a few seconds, capably and clearly convey lengthy passages of the book. Through their expert workmanship the classic story is truly portrayed, in the spirit if not precisely to the letter.
March makes the screen Jean ValJean a living version of the panegyrical character. He is the same persecuted, pursued, pitiable, but always admirable man that all readers of the book must visualize. There is studied acting in the March performance, but none of it tends to sacrifice VaIjean for flashy histrionics. Side by side with March, throughout the picture, is Laughton, as Javert, the cop. His performance is much more on the quiet side, but equally powerful and always believable.
Laughton and March between them have a monopoly on cast prominence, due to the nature of the roles as written. The only competitive threat is from Cedric Hardwicke, who shines in the brief footage allotted to his Bishop Bienvenu. Hardwicke's .failure to show again after his one short inning will be a disappointment to audiences. Other characters follow Hugo's original intentions closely, and although there has been some necessary tampering only one part was noticeably written down. That is Thenardier, handled by Ferdinand Gottschalk and considerably abbreviated.
Florence Eldridge, in one of her infrequent picture appearances, makes the betrayed Fantine amount to something. Frances Drake also shows to advantage as Eponine. Rochelle Hudson's Cosette and John Beal's Marius are satisfactory interpretations of conventional juvenile roles. Miss Hudson's best work, in the tender father-daughter passages, unfortunately arrives when March is at his peak. The compact scenario contains the essential big moments in the life of VaIjean. His death is omitted in favor of a happier ending, but it's an omission rather than a change, and the move was not unwise. Picture ends with the suicide of Javert, whose creed is the law and who chooses death because he weakens in an act of gratitude. In the book the end of VaIjean is rather an anti-climax anyway, so the picture's conclusion is logical enough.
VaIjean's service in the galley, to which he is sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread; Javert's pursuit of VaIjean and his foster-daughter; the revolt of the French students; the race of VaIjean with the injured Marius on his shoulders, through the stinking sewers of Paris, all breath-taking action passages, are brilliantly managed
Bolestawski's handling is screen direction at its best. He is seemingly at home both with spectacle and character stuff. His story and players are never out of control.
The technical background is aces.
When made as a silent by Fox in 1917, with William Farnum starred, the shortcomings of "Les Miserables" as screen fodder were excused on the grounds that the task of adapting the classic for films was "impossible". That it wasn't impossible at all is illustrated well enough by this production, and that pictures can do anything and go anywhere for material is also demonstrated. The motion picture has come a long way in 15 years. Bige.