Having the theatrical background that I do, I of course know of Les Miserables, and indeed I’ve already reviewed the recent 2012 adaptation of the musical version. This, however, is from 1935, and precedes the musical, being a straight film adaptation of the original novel by Victor Hugo. I don’t think I’ve seen a non-musical version of Les Mis, so this was to be somewhat of a new and different experience for me. This one has the benefit of Fredric March as Jean Valjean, and Charles Laughton as Inspector Javert, and indeed if I were to scour the annals of classic cinema stars to try and cast these two roles, I doubt I could find any two better than March and Laughton, especially after seeing the resulting film of such casting; both are absolutely superb. Weirdly enough, though, I think I’d prefer the musical version of this story; not that this film doesn’t work, because it does, but having seen both versions, this one felt more like there was something to it that was missing.
If you don’t know the story, it’s a fairly convoluted one, and the film (this one) doesn’t cover nearly all of it and changes some other stuff around, so I’ll try and keep it simple. Jean Valjean is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread for his impoverished family, and is sentenced to the galleys for ten years, during which he meets Inspector Javert, a rigid man obsessed with following the law to the letter. After his release, he lives on the streets, until a kind gesture by a clergyman sets him on a better path, but in doing so he breaks his parole, thus setting Javert on his trail, along with a young ward named Cosette. Forward a few years, and Valjean and Cosette live in Paris, where they meet a young student named Marius, who wishes for government reform and falls for Cosette in turn, but when their reform leads to revolution, Valjean must keep the ever-recurring Javert at bay long enough to find what the right course is for his young ward, as well as himself. The story of the film, contrary to the musical as well as the recent adaptation (which was much more streamlined, if somewhat longer as a result), is a lot more lopsided toward the beginning sections with Valjean as a convict, then ex-con, then as mayor with the young Cosette; indeed, an hour of the film had gone by before Valjean and Cosette are forced to flee when Valjean’s identity is discovered, and the film is less than two hours long, to where I was wondering how the film was going to cover everything it needed to. In its doing so, it shortens the second half of the film considerably, but it gets the job done. I don’t think a film, especially an adaptation of Les Mis, can really be sold to a potential audience on “it gets the job done”, however, so what is there to watch this for? Well, it’s pretty darn good, but especially if you’ve already seen a later adaptation of the work, it may not be worth revisiting, save for two main reasons: Fredric March and Charles Laughton. Laughton imbues Javert with real character, and we understand him as a person even though his dogged adherence to the law means he is fated to be the antagonist of the story, all the way to the closing shots (which might be confusing to those who don’t really know the story of Les Mis). Equally, Fredric March very nearly epitomizes the concept of the protagonist, and he absolutely impressed the hell out of me, which is saying something considering I already like him and he’d already won a Best Actor Oscar a few years before. That March wasn’t nominated this year alongside the triplicate nominations of Mutiny on the Bounty (which include Laughton) is a real shame; he might’ve stood a chance of winning it again. There was also a horse chase in the middle of the film that had very weird chase music attached to it, which made the film seem like a poorly-made television serial for those scant couple minutes or so, so heads up on one of the few pieces of score in the film.
I know I haven’t said too much about what really does work in this film versus what doesn’t work, besides the two lead males, but honestly, I don’t think I can really say what about this made it work as well as it does; this is one of those types of films that’s almost ethereal when one tries to break it down into its components. It works, but I’m not really certain as to why. Same thing with the things that didn’t work as well, which aside from the shortening of the plot and the aforementioned chase music my list pretty much came up empty on that side. I guess that’s what I tried to get across with my statements in the opener; this is good, but I can’t really put it down as to why. The only question I’m really forced to ask is: is this going to be worth your time, even if you’ve seen Les Mis before, either in musical or non-musical form? I’ve only seen two film versions of the production, plus a stage show, so I can’t say with absolute certainty, but in my mind; yes, it is. March and Laughton are very nearly the quintessential Valjean and Javert, and this is worth watching for the two of them alone. The rest of it, however, will probably feel a little bare-bones compared to the richness of the musical adaptations, but it’s still a very nice film, especially if one hasn’t seen Les Mis before.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10