« Les Misérables », Paris Cinema Notes
PARIS is now seeing one of the greatest productions that the screen has yet given us. It is Pathé-Natan's "Les Misérables," directed by Raymond Bernard. There are no fewer than three full-length pictures, each capable of standing alone, but together forming a connected version of Victor Hugo's famous noveI. They are being shown simultaneously at three cinemas on the Grands Boulevards and the Champs-Elysées - Paramount, Marivaux and Marignan.
It is certainly the most ambitious effort in screen history, and fortunately it is also one of the most successful. As it is being run there are more than 25,000 feet of film to be seen out of 80,000 taken. It would perhaps be an exaggeration to say that there is not a dull moment, or that the action never drags, but those moments are few, and the sequence sweeps on from beginning to end with epic force. For those who have read "Les Misérables" - and perhaps nine people out of ten have, at least in France - there is the added thrill of seeing these old, familiar friends reincarnated in the superb cast which M. Bernard assembled. It is one of those rare examples of the screen improving upon a literary classic, for whatever one's opinion of Hugo's colossal masterpiece there is no denying that hundreds and hundreds of pages of it are utterly dull. Here we have all the truly famous episodes picked out for us and skillfully woven together with the aid of André Lang's inspired improvisation.
Its Story Interest.
M. Bernard had to convey the two dominating ideas of "Les Misérables" - the moral struggle of good against evil, both of the individual against himself and society against the individual, and the civic struggle of the citizen against tyranny, which for Hugo took the form of a fight for republicanism. And perhaps most of all it was up to M. Bernard to give big audience a rattling good story, for therein more than in anything else lay Hugo's genius.
It is only by considering the colossal task which faced him that one comes to appreciate the result. The film - or rather the trilogy - is a success from any point of view. Both French and foreign critics here have paid it the highest compliments, while there can be no doubting its appeal to Parisian audiences. There is only one drawback, and that is the expense of seeing it. One cannot get into the important Parisian cinemas for less than the equivalent of $1, while the best seats are more than $1.50. The enormous burden of government taxation makes such prices necessary. In the case of "Les Misérables", therefore, the producer is asking the public to spend from $3 to $4.50 to see it, and in a country which is only now feeling the full force of the economic crisis that is a large sum of money. It is too early yet to know whether the production will be a financial success. It is a new departure in film history, and as such the results will be of interest to producers everywhere. In the early days of the silent film the serial thriller was in great demand, but this is another matter entirely. Should it be found impossible to draw sufficient audiences to see all three films it is understood that Pathé-Natan will cut the trilogy down to one long film. It can be done, though at considerable sacrifice.
The Three Parts.
The way M. Bernard has divided and presented his material is highly interesting. The three parts are called "Une tempête sous un crâne" ("Storm Under a Skull"), "Les Thénardier" and "Liberté, Liberté chérie" ("Liberty, Dear Liberty").
The first picture carries us from the prison at Toulon to the death of Fantine and Jean VaIjean's second escape from prison. As the film opens we see the convict, Jean Valjean, accomplishing a superhuman feat of strength in saving an enornous statue from crashing. For that he is freed ahead of his time, and sent on his way with the few francs he had earned in jail, and the yellow passport showing that he had been condemned to five years' imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread, and because of four unsuccessful attempts to escape his term had been increased to nineteen years. The character that we find at the opening of the drama, therefore, is a desperate, dangerous criminal, brutalized by nineteen years of inhuman treatment, an enemy of society, which he hates and which despises and fears him.
Then comes the famous scene in the house of Mgr. Myriel, the Bishop of Digne. Jean VaIjean, driven from every door, appeals to Mgr. Myriel for food and lodging. The saintly bishop treats him as an honored guest, serves him with his best silver, and gives him a bed with clean, white linen sheets. But yielding to his baser nature Jean Valjean in the dead of night steals away with the silver service. The next morning he is brought back by the gendarmes, to whom he had confessed his theft.
"It is I who gave the silver to that man," the bishop says. "I also gave him two silver candlesticks. Why didn't you take them with you, my friend?"
This example of angelic goodness in a world which had become incapable of it to him deeply moves Jean Valjean, as does Mgr. Myriel's admonition in handing him the silver candlesticks: "I am sure that you will use this silver to become an honest man."
Part Two is devoted to that ghoulish couple, the Thénardiers. We see them at the beginning mistreating Cosette until Jean VaIjean, now Ursule (sic) Fauchelevent, comes and takes her away. Eight years pass; Cosette is 16 and in love with Marius de Pontmercy; Jean VaIjean is a rich and respected bourgeois; the Thénardiers are janitors in a tenement house. It is they who furnish the drama of this section.
We then come, In "Liberté, Liberté chérie", to the culminating point of this great drama. It is 1832 and the seeds of revolution are beginning to sprout. Marius, like other young students of his time (and in France today, be it said in passing), was preparing to overthrow the government. The occasion for the uprising was to be the funeral of General Lamarque, one of Napoleon's aides. In his despair because of his uncle's refusal to let him marry Cosette, Marius joins his comrades at the barricade on the Rue de la Chanvrerie.
It is regrettable that so little space remains to discuss the highlights of this colossal work and, above all, the acting. Certain episodes rank with the finest passages which the screen has given us. In that respect it is the last which is perhaps the best; the street fighting (so thrillingly reminiscent of that terrible night of Feb. 6, 1934), the flight through the sewers, the funeral of Lamarque - are all superb.
But no lack of space could justify neglecting to pay due credit to the marvelous characterization of Jean VaIjean by Harry Baur. If the screen has ever furnished a more wonderful piece of acting, your correspondent has never seen it. His transformation from the brutal, powerful beast of the opening passages to the saintly old man of the close is little short of a miracle of fidelity. Nothing more penetrating, more deeply and tragically human than his performance could be imagined. Those New Yorkers who have seen him in "Poil de Carotte" need no introduction to him. Despite his name, he is a Frenchman, with a long career on the stage before coming to the screen. By Herbert L. Matthews.