Les Misérables (1935) Poster

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10/10
The best American film version of the novel
critic-220 January 2003
Although you would not think so from reading some of the reviews here, the 1935 film version of "Les Miserables" is excellent and one of the best film versions of the novel, especially considering its 108 minute length. It is too much to ask a film that lasts a little less than two hours to pack in all the important incidents in a book that consists of more than 1,000 pages. No film has ever been able to do that, and three-hour American films, except for a couple of D.W. Griffith features, were virtually unheard of before 1936 (the year that "The Great Ziegfeld" was released).

Fredric March gives one of his finest performances as Jean Valjean---far better than Michael Rennie's pallid one in the 1952 remake-- and his voice reminds one not of Jimmy Stewart, but of John Barrymore, an actor to whom March was often compared to in his early days. Although he seems to be on the verge of overemoting once or twice, he can also be quite subtle and sardonic (just watch him in the scenes in which he implies that Javert has no idea of how to temper justice with mercy, or his performance in the scene in which he first meets Cosette at the inn). March, now virtually forgotten by today's younger generation, was easily one of the best actors of the twentieth century, whether on stage or screen, It is a pity that he never felt inclined to act in a Shakespeare play or film, a decision he himself came to regret.

Charles Laughton is equally as good as the vicious, single-minded, and in this version at least, neurotic Inspector Javert. Laughton's small touches, far from making his performance seem hammy, vividly illustrate the personality of a man so ashamed of his own parentage that he cannot bear to talk about it without seeming to be about to break into tears. If it had not been for his brilliant Captain Bligh in "Mutiny on the Bounty", released the same year as "Les Miserables", Laughton would almost certainly have been nominated for his performance as Javert.

John Beal and Rochelle Hudson are adequate as the lovers, although Beal is hardly anyone's idea of a sexy, dashing young man. Hudson's performance is infinitely preferable to the awful one given by the beautiful Debra Paget (best remembered as Joshua's love interest in "The Ten Commandments") in the 1952 remake of "Les Miserables". Eponine in this version is not portrayed as a prostitute, probably because of the censorship restrictions of that time, and Gavroche is completely eliminated from this version. Cedric Hardwicke, in a very small role, is fine if a little too syrupy, as the bishop who aids Valjean after he is released from prison.

The legendary Gregg Toland's photography is excellent, and the scenes in which Valjean serves in the galleys are frighteningly realistic for a major Hollywood film of this era (the scene in which March is beaten and begins screaming in pain is profoundly disturbing, and it recurrs later on in a nightmare).

The 1935 "Les Miserables" easily eclipses all later versions in English, and still stands as one of the best Hollywood versions of a literary masterpiece.
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9/10
Takes His Cues From the Heart
bkoganbing20 November 2006
Another reviewer of this version of Les Miserables said this was the Cliff's Notes version of the Victor Hugo classic. I'd be hard pressed to disagree, but bear in mind that another reviewer said the novel itself is over 1300 pages. That would be a daunting task for any film maker. Les Miserables whether done in English, French or Sanskrit lends itself to a mini-series.

Nevertheless this version that stars Fredric March and Charles Laughton is a good encapsulation of the mammoth story about a paroled prisoner trying to escape his past and the relentless police official who's made it a life's obsession to track him down.

This is the third and final film that March and Laughton co-starred in and they did all three of their films for different studios, Sign of the Cross for Paramount, The Barretts of Wimpole Street for MGM and Les Miserables for the newly formed 20th Century Fox. I'd be hard pressed to pick one that is the best because all three have something different to offer.

I think what Victor Hugo does is make a great case for situational ethics in this story. March as Jean Valjean the prisoner is jailed for 10 years on a minor charge and thereafter subject to a strict parole system. He misses a check in and he's a fugitive.

But March is shown kindness by a warm and understanding bishop played by Cedric Hardwicke and changes his life around. But he has to move several times because of the relentless Inspector Javert.

Charles Laughton in his career played many a deformed soul and none more than Inspector Javert. He's a convict's son himself and to repudiate his humble origins becomes a policeman, but one with a rigid code that shows no understanding of times and conditions for a crime and makes no attempt at all to temper his rigid code with a drop or two of mercy.

Had Javert chosen the ministry, he'd have made a great hellfire and damnation preacher, getting all the words right but missing the music of love, redemption and forgiveness. And Valjean who is of equally humble origins is a redeemed soul, a conception Javert can't understand. But he also knows that Valjean even through out the trials Javert puts him through is one at peace with himself and there's no small amount of jealousy in Laughton's portrayal.

In a great acting duo, I give the decision by a few points to March, mainly because of his dual portrayal. At one point March hears from Laughton that Jean Valjean has been arrested and is on trial. After a lot of soul searching he goes to the neighboring town and gets a half wit off who is also played by Fredric March. Because of that Les Miserables has become one of my favorite Fredric March pictures.

March never got another shot at a thespian duel so to speak with another screen icon until Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy. His three films with Charles Laughton are deserved classics all. This is as good a version as you'll ever get of Les Miserables for a single motion picture.
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Good Movie Adaptation of a Great Novel
Snow Leopard16 November 2004
Victor Hugo's novel "Les Misérables" is the kind of elaborate and insightful classic that can never be equaled in a movie. But this 1935 version is a good adaptation, with two excellent stars, believable settings, and a decent script that concentrates on a selection of the more important portions of the novel. While hardly the towering achievement that Hugo's work was, it serves pretty well as an introduction to the two main characters and the basic themes behind their confrontations.

Fredric March and Charles Laughton work very well as the leads. March seems well-cast as Jean Valjean. He's a character that's very hard to do justice to, but March does about as well as anyone could in bringing out some of the thoughts and anxieties inside him. As Javert, Laughton is a less obvious choice for the role, but he shows enough restraint to do a good job in communicating the inspector's intransigent devotion to a narrow set of beliefs. While you could hardly expect the complexity of the novel, the scenes with the two of them work well in bringing out the basic contrasts in their personalities and perspectives.

The other characters are pushed more into the background, and many of their stories are only partially developed. Accordingly, they are portrayed by a solid but generally unremarkable supporting cast. The screenplay focuses on Valjean and Javert, with the other characters usually coming into play only insofar as they relate to the stories of the other two. No doubt that is a disappointment to those who admire the interesting lives and well-developed personalities that Hugo wrote for them, but it seems hardly avoidable in a regular-length film feature.

For an attempt to convey the central characters and themes of the story, this works pretty well, and it is a classic worth seeing. Those familiar with the novel should at least be able to appreciate March and Laughton for bringing their characters to life, and those who have not read the novel should find it a worthwhile introduction to the story.
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Missing the depth of the novel, but still good.
theowinthrop18 March 2005
To begin with, I doubt that most people realize that Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is not a two hundred to four hundred page novel. It is a thirteen hundred page novel (in English translation as well as the original French). This actually puts it into the same category as those other classic that most people never read: "The Bible" (both testaments together), "Don Quixote", "War and Peace", "Clarissa Harlowe", "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", "The Count of Monte Cristo". Everyone knows stories or chunks of most of these books (except for Richardson's "Clarissa", which is not popular these days due to it's epistolary style). Few read them to get an idea of their full impact. It is sobering to realize that humongous novels by Dickens and Thackeray and George Eliott, like "Bleak House, "Pendennis", or "Middlemarch", are shorter (roughly 800 pages each) than these seven earlier titles that I mention. That means one is more likely to be willing to read "Middlemarch" (a thoughtful but difficult study of provincial life in 1832 England), than "The Count of Monte Cristo" (with it's fast paced and exciting tale of power, greed, and revenge in post-Napoleonic France.

In it's full range, "Les Miserables" was a probing attack on the greed and social evil rampant in France from 1815 to 1832 (the beginning of the so-called "July " or Orleans Monarchy. However I warn you that if you read it you will find it annoying after awhile. You will remain sympathetic towards Valjean, protecting little Cosette who he raises as his daughter, and saving Marius (although he would as soon Cosette never saw Marius again). And you will also dislike Javert, his adversary - the perfect police official. But you will find Hugo expounding questionable views on criminals. Not all the poor are criminals, but after reading Hugo one gets the impression that if they aren't they are fools. For all the defects of Louis Phillippe's July Monarchy, it gave France prosperity and peace for nearly two decades. But to Hugo it was a criminal throwback to the barbarism of the Bourbons - France did not need monarchs, it was a republic and a democracy. For most of his life Hugo attacked "royalism" in all its guises in France, culminating in his years in exile in opposition to the Second Empire of Napoleon III (1851 - 1870 - the period that Hugo wrote "Les Misearbles" in). Oddly enough he never really attacks the first Napoleon. Read the chapters on the Battle of Waterloo in "Les Miserables" and it is almost a regrettable valentine to the little Corsican. Interestingly enough, when the Paris Commune burned much private property in 1871 (before being put down by French troops assisted by German troops), Hugo suddenly ceased being so admiring about the lowest level of the poor - after all they burned some of his property too.

Trimmed of much of it's literary weight it makes a dandy little over-the-years thriller, and it has been filmed many times. The best one I remember was a French version from 1956 with Jean Gabin as Valjean (and actually he was physically closer to the poor ex convict than March was). But it was three and a half hours long, so I suspect that this one will have to do. It keeps the main threads of the story together, and performances by March, Laughton, Florence Eldritch (as Fantine), and others are excellent. Even Leonid Kinski as one of March's former convict friends gives a chilling little moment just by saying "Hello Jean" in a courtroom. So watch it, the best normal length movie version. And then put aside a month for reading the original novel (and then plan similar time schemes for those other unread classics I just listed - It will occupy you for about a year and a half or so).
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10/10
Hollywood at its best!
jamesmmahoney8 January 2008
This 1935 version of "Les Miserables" is perhaps the finest film ever produced during Hollywood's golden age. Highlighted by superb acting from three of the greatest English-speaking actors ever to appear on film (March, Laughton and Hardwicke), a superb script and outstanding production values, this 20h Century Fox production has more than stood the test of time. Now released on DVD, it is available for modern audiences to view and compare to other filmed and staged versions of this classic Victor Hugo tale. Even now, 73 years after it was filmed, it never fails to move the viewer with its extraordinarily powerful narrative. A not-to-be-missed film from Hollywood's Golden Age!
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excellent adaptation from the novel
didi-520 June 2004
This adaptation from the famed Victor Hugo novel came to the screen at the end of Twentieth Century's existence as a separate film company before joining with Fox Films. Starring Fredric March as Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert, it would be worth watching just for those two, who are at the height of their acting powers in this.

Others in the cast are Florence Eldridge (Mrs Fredric March) as Fantine, Rochelle Hudson as Cosette, John Beal as Marius (a bit of a wet fish), and Ferdinand Gottschalk as Thenardier. The novel is re-interpreted and expanded to include, for example, some sense of Cosette growing up in the care of Valjean. There are also some memorable visuals - notably the court scene where Valjean reveals his identity, and the shot of the handcuffs Javert leaves behind when he goes to his (off-screen) suicide.

A worthy adaptation of a memorable and complex novel. Less obvious that some versions which have appeared in later decades, this 30s film is probably the best adaptation that has been made.
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Worth seeing for fans of the novel only
André-724 May 2001
Two or three superb moments are worth seeing for fans of the novel. March gripping the candle holders and in the throws of doubt. This is the only version that shows that goodness does not always come easily to this man. He is constantly locked in a struggle with his own selfishness or desires. Montage of Valjean and Cosette eating soup and sharing other affectionate moments together as she grows up. These are vital transitional scenes that are sorely missing from the novel and go a long way towards making the girl likeable. Javert's moment of realisation that he cannot bring Valjean in after all. Laughton plays it to the hilt in typical Hollywood 1930's style, but it is the defining moment for this character. These scenes add and embellish on the novel's themes and make this version worth a trip to the video rental store. I mean this is an adaptation, people. You want to be a purist? Go read the book.
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Message to Javert-- "Get a Life".
dougdoepke26 November 2008
So stealing a loaf of bread gets you years in a squalid prison, rowing a galley with a thousand other poor souls that never goes anywhere. Some justice. And if you miss a parole appearance, you get a monomaniacal cop named Javert who has no life other than chasing you down. So, if you're like Val Jean, wouldn't you get mean and anti-social too. And when invited out of a storm by a priest, no less, it's only natural that Val Jean looks to steal what he can. But then, a funny thing happens. When the cops bring him back with the stolen goods, the priest gets him off the hook by saying the stolen candlesticks were a gift. It's an act of mercy, something the law has never shown him. Now Val Jean sees that life might be lived in a kinder, gentler way. And when he leaves and comes to the literal and figurative fork-in-the-road, he remembers the words of humane wisdom given him by the priest. Traveling in a new direction, he becomes the good man he has always been, waiting to be brought out. Now, if only he could get that merciless cop off his trail, life would be good.

Fine dramatization of Hugo's great plea for social reform in 19th century France. I wonder what our own Depression era audiences saw in the story, given the oppressive conditions of the 1930's. March is compelling as the reborn Val Jean, while Laughton makes for an unforgettably quirky Javert. But I wonder too, what would change if the aristocratically handsome March played Javert, with the very unphotogenic Laughton as Val Jean. That would challenge our comfortable stereotypes and make for a more interesting and humane message. Then too it's unfortunate that someone in production felt the audience wouldn't get the spiritual message without being hit over the head with heavenly choirs and light beams from above. I guess that was done for box-office returns. But too often Hollywood has reduced the profound to the hokey, thereby corrupting the message and turning spirituality into a mere matter of stage craft. Nonetheless, the moral remains a telling one, as relevant now as it was 70 or even 170 years ago. Law exists only on paper, while justice—as they say—dwells in the human heart. It is not a truth Javert, the slavish servant of the state, can live with. Hugo was not only a great writer, but a very good man, as well.
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10/10
Greatest Film Ever Made! Hardwicke Is A Standout As The Good Priest!
georfra686 April 2008
Of course, this is my opinion. Great films are not easily defined, but this has everything in it: strong characterization, great story, great acting, and great scriptwriting. This is also a successful abbreviated adaptation of a very long novel. I first saw it when I was 11 years old back in December of 1979. It stuck in my mind for five years, but I didn't know what the name of the film was or what book it was based on until I accidentally saw the 1978 remake of it on t.v. late one night in 1984. The 1978 version was a good film, but not nearly as good as the 1935 version. I then borrowed the Victor Hugo novel from the library and read it, but it was not until the spring of 1986 that I was able to tape a late night version of this excellent film. Frederic March was the best Jean Valjean. He portrayed both sides of the tortured protagonist (desperate peasant and selfless businessman) with a spirit and passion unequaled by later Valjeans. Charles Laughton was equally superb as the obsessed antagonist, Inspector Javert. One could not help but feel pity for him in the final moments of the film. The best scenes in the film, however, were the ones with Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Bishop Bienvenue. Hardwicke is so credible in his brief scenes that we actually believe he is the kind bishop rather than an actor playing a part. Hardwicke is aided by the brilliant writing of the scriptwriter, W.P. Lipscomb, whose writing here matches Hugo's himself. If there is any movie you should watch before you die, this is the one to see.
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10/10
Brilliant Miserables
TheLittleSongbird19 November 2013
Les Miserables, with its rich and powerful narrative and mostly compelling characters, is deservedly a classic. It is also not an easy book to adapt, because of how rich in detail it is and its mammoth length. This 1935 film is one of the best and most accessible of Les Miserables(which has been adapted several times with mixed results). Adpaptation-wise, it is not word for word-we are looking at a very long film or mini-series, which was literally unheard of around that time, that way- and condensed(some might say it guillotines the text, but that seems to me too harsh and violent a word to use), but it does do a great job still and the spirit of the book still remains. It does deserve to be judged on its own merits, as do most adaptations, and on that front Les Miserables(1935) succeeds brilliantly. It is a very lavish and authentic production, of all the film adaptations it is one of the best-looking. Alfred Newman's score has that stirring and haunting touch, it has his distinctive style yet it fits the tone of the film ideally. The script is very literate and thoughtful and the story still is powerful, I am in complete agreement that there is the sense also that Valjean doesn't find goodness to be easy despite his nobility. The climax is ironic and hugely emotional, apparently Charles Laughton himself said that it was "the finest thing I have ever been able to accomplish on the screen", some could argue that but with others(including myself) it is very easy to see why. It is skilfully directed and paced in a way that doesn't feel as though it's rushing through the narrative nor that it plods. The chase in the sewers is thrilling. The performances are very good, Frances Eldridge is a moving Fantine, John Beal is likable as Marius, Frances Drake's Eponine is loyal and empathetic and while Cosette is one of the least well-developed characters of the book Rochelle Hudson is charming and sympathetic, careful not to let her delicate looks overshadow her acting(easy to do and a lot of Cosettes have fallen into that trap). The leads are the ones that dominate. Fredric March is very well cast as Valjean, bringing out his nobility and character conflict, that he's handsome too is a bonus. Even more impressive is Charles Laughton, who is effortlessly obsessive and menacingly commanding but he does manage to reign in and not resort to hamminess too much, Javert's conflict has been more convincing elsewhere but there is still the realisation that he can't get what he's been pursuing for so long without going against what's he's stood for(and the realisation also that he cannot accept that Valjean has really changed after thinking him an immoral man for so long) and it still convinces. In conclusion, brilliant film. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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8/10
Les Best Adaptation
kenjha3 May 2009
This is perhaps the best screen adaptation of the Hugo novel about crime and punishment. March is terrific as Valjean, a man subjected to ten years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. As Javert, a letter-of-the-law police inspector singularly obsessed with returning Valjean to prison for missing parole, Laughton is better than in the same year's "Mutiny on the Bounty." Hardwicke is effective in a small but pivotal role while Hudson and Beal make attractive lovers. Boleslawski, who died at age 47 only two years after directing this film, generally keeps the film from turning melodramatic and benefits from Toland's fine cinematography.
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10/10
Vive Les Miserables!
Sylviastel6 March 2007
I thought this was an excellent early version of Victor Hugo's classic. The actor who plays Valjean does an excellent job as does British actor Charles Laughton who plays Javert who chases him for years. I love the film even though it might be dated but it's still faithful to the classic novel. The actresses who play Cosette and Fantine do an excellent job even though they are supporting parts. The film's quality is still excellent even though it was done over seventy years ago in the early stages of talking movies. I still think it's a classic movie and of the novel's best. This film version does not have the music but it still contains the same message of Victor Hugo's novel. Valjean is beautifully played as is Javert in this film.
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10/10
Stunning Portrayal of the Human Soul
Hitchcoc6 December 2018
This is a timeless plot. Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread and spends nearly twenty years in prison. When he is released, he is tagged with a yellow card, indicating that he is dangerous and making it nearly impossible to blend back into society. Then a major event happens when he meets the Bishop. He robs the man but the Bishop tells the police he was only recovering his own property. Valjean reclaims life and hope. Of course, the rest of the story is that of Javert, played by Charles Laughton, who becomes obsessed with the capture of Valjean. His reasons have to do with the pain and loneliness he has endured. Valjean and his adoptive daughter try to stay a jump ahead of the law. This is a complex film. Most people know the plot because of the musical. I have always thought this was the best portrayal of this book.
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Great Performances from Two Legends
Michael_Elliott19 February 2010
Les misérables (1935)

**** (out of 4)

Exceptional version of Victor Hugo's classic novel about Jean Valjean (Fredric March), a man made a criminal by circumstances but paying for the crime only to then be hounded by an Inspector (Charles Laughton) without any sense of goodness or justice. The mammoth novel doesn't get the page-by-page treatment but the screenplay does both the novel justice as well as the characters. This novel has been filmed countless times over the decades and many of the versions run four and five hours but this one here clocks in at just 108-minutes so many of the subplots and various other items are naturally missing. I never compare the book to the film so there's really nothing to be said between them but this movie certainly deserves its classic label for many reasons including two masterful performances from a couple of legends. The screenplay perfectly captures the heart, mood and soul of the novel but its the actors that really bring it to life as both March and Laughton deliver extremely strong performances, which rank among the best I've seen from the men and that's saying quite a lot considering how many great roles they've had. Laughton really got under my skin in a good way as I can't say how many times I wanted to jump through my screen and do bodily harm to him. The character is certainly one of the most known and hated villains in history and I'm sure most actors would have just let the character do all the work but Laughton takes this rather evil man and makes him a real cold snake without any emotions. The way Laughton constantly hounds March and that evil glance in his eye that just makes you feel the coldness is perfectly done. Laughton would gain sympathy in a few years playing the Hunchback from Hugo's novel so it's rather amazing to see him play and perfectly capture the other side of the human nature. March too is perfect in his role as I'm sure a role like this is pure heaven for an actor considering how many emotions and various ranges they have to go through. Needless to say, March perfectly nails all of them whether it's the man begging for pity at the start of the film or the man finally worn down and ready for his justice. When the two are on screen together they play wonderfully well off of one another and really deliver some great scenes. Cedric Hardwicke, Rochelle Hudson and Florence Eldridge add nice support and look quickly for John Carradine in an early role. Fans of the novel will certainly want to check this film out but even if you're not familiar with the work you'll still find yourself really eating everything up here. The two legends make this a must-see for fans of classic cinema.
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What would Hugo say?
greystudies16 May 2001
As a complete Victor Hugo fan in general, and "Les Miserables" in particular, let me speak about this so-called 'classic version'. First of all let me say that I am not French, and so am not speaking from a French perspective. If a British or American classic had received the treatment which this version had, the critics would have most certainly lambasted it. Why are the critics falling all over themselves in praise for a version which retains neither the spirit nor even the plot of the original? Nothing bad happens to Fantine other than getting fired from the factory, the Revolutionaries become a student's society for law reform, Eponine, a pathetic waif in the novel, becomes a respectable young woman who serves as Marius' secretary, Gavroche, the novel's most original and interesting character, is completely eliminated, etc, etc. This version is only, repeat ONLY, for those who have either not read the novel or have no respect for the novel.
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10/10
LES MISERABLES (Richard Boleslawski, 1935) ****
Bunuel19766 May 2007
Like Jean Renoir's THE TESTAMENT OF DR. CORDELIER (1959), which I watched the previous day, this was another film I'd been pining for since childhood; naturally, I pre-ordered both titles as soon as they were available.

Actually, of the myriad film versions of the Victor Hugo classic, this is only the second I've checked out (the other one had been the 1978 TV adaptation featuring Richard Jordan and Anthony Perkins); still, I should soon be able to further rectify this situation and catch at least three more – the 1934 5-hour French film by Raymond Bernard (upcoming on Criterion's Eclipse line), the 1952 Fox production which accompanies on DVD the film under review, and the 3-hour color version with Jean Gabin (which I recorded off Italian TV some 3 years ago but have never managed to find an appropriate time-slot to fit it in my hectic film-viewing schedule). Incidentally, my uncle – who occasionally dabbles in stage and TV work as writer/director/ actor/composer – had adapted Hugo's work for the theater some years ago; besides, my father had once attended a performance of the acclaimed musical version while on holiday in London.

The 1930s saw many Hollywood studios striving for respectability by embarking on prestige productions based on famous literary sources (the stars of LES MISERABLES themselves, Fredric March and Charles Laughton, also appeared in ANNA KARENINA and MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY respectively – both made by MGM – in the same year alone!). Fox's contribution was this superb film (produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, an active purveyor of social-conscience themes – of which the Hugo novel is the obvious prototype), which certainly emerges as a sterling example of great storytelling and fine craftsmanship that Hollywood was capable of during its Golden Age: script, cinematography, music and sets are all equally impressive, as are the sprawling crowd scenes (the film was, in fact, nominated for Assistant Direction – actually, one of only four awards given in this category – credited to Eric Stacey). Its three other nominations were for Best Cinematography (by the legendary Gregg Toland), Best Editing (Barbara McLean) and Best Picture (eventually losing to the afore-mentioned BOUNTY).

March is a constantly underrated actor (even the two reviews I've come across for this film praise Laughton's contribution over his thoughtful and sturdy portrayal), perhaps because his style tends towards theatricality, but he's always been a favorite of mine; here, we see him personify Jean Valjean through the various stages of his life – and even gets to play the look-alike convict (with a welcome touch of humor) who, at one point, is mistaken for him! Laughton's Javert has been accused of hamminess (of all people, by director Lewis Milestone, who helmed the 1952 remake) but his interpretation of the role is actually very subtle and altogether memorable: compelling in his tenacity, yet also made pitiable by his inflexible adherence to the letter of the Law; the 1930s were Laughton's peak period, and many of his performances from around this time involved complex characterizations (a variety of tyrants, the painter Rembrandt and Quasimodo – another Victor Hugo creation). Incidentally, this is the third time these two acting giants have appeared together (or, if you like, played against one another) following THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932) and THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET (1934) – and it's easily the best of them: the Valjean/Javert confrontation is one of the most famous in the annals of literature and, by extension, cinema (it may actually have inspired the similarly long-running Ben-Hur/Messala feud in General Lew Wallace's equally popular epic, not to mention the more recent Leonardo di Caprio/Daniel Day-Lewis showdown in GANGS OF NEW YORK [2002] – since it also occurs during a period of turmoil and whose outcome is, to say the least, unexpected).

The supporting cast is led by Cedric Hardwicke in a brief but pivotal role – indeed, his presence permeates the entire film – as the priest who, apart from sheltering Valjean when no one else would, passes on to him his simple philosophy in life (which places charity to one's fellow-man above all); Rochelle Hudson and John Beal supply the romantic interest (though Valjean gradually starts to feel affection for the girl himself – while Beal is loved by Frances Drake); the latter gives a touching performance, especially in the scene where she bonds with March over their common predicament; John Carradine appears in a small role as a student radical; whereas Florence Eldridge, March's real-life wife, plays the ill-fated Cosette (the Hudson character's mother).

By the way, the print utilized for the DVD transfer is nowhere near as bad as the screenshots accompanying DVD Beaver's otherwise enthusiastic appraisal would seem to imply; for such an old – and rare – film, I thought it was perfectly acceptable when viewed on a normal-sized TV screen (where any resultant deficiencies are never distracting in a way that would hamper one's enjoyment of the main feature)!

While a necessarily telescoped adaptation of Hugo's massive novel, this had always been considered the screen's best rendition of it – but the 1934 French film is, clearly, much more thorough and could, therefore, justifiably lay claim to being the definitive version (anticipation over its DVD release in July has certainly garnered it a lot of momentum lately!); another cinematic stab at this enduring classic story I'd love to watch is the 1947 Italian version – which was directed by Riccardo Freda, starred Gino Cervi, and is also notable for marking the debut appearance of Marcello Mastroianni!

Normally, I would have followed this with a viewing of the remake so as to make an immediate comparison – but I have such an assortment of DVDs to choose from (the other titles in the Renoir set, various Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda films, just as many by Jess Franco, Volume Two of the W.C. FIELDS COLLECTION, etc.) that I opted to alternate them!
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9/10
One of the best versions of the story is a damn fine film as well.
dbborroughs18 October 2009
Warning: Spoilers
Story of Jean Valjean from his arrest for stealing bread, the time in the galleys, to his release and hounding by a certain police inspector to whom the law is all. Its a powerful story masterfully told. I've seen any number of versions of the story and all have to trim Victor Hugo's monster of a novel. Unfortunately most versions trim the material so much that you can feel the missing passages. thats not the case here. Here you feel as though you've seen it all. You actually get to know the characters and aren't marched through the story at a break neck speed that that is required to get it all in. This is possibly the shortest version but it feels complete. the cast headed by Fredrick March and Charles Laughton is excellent across the board. This is a must see.
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4/10
A Decent Movie, but a Bad Adaptation
sailortrinity0813 May 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I had read many good things about this adaptation of my favorite novel...so invariably my expectations were crushed. But they were crushed more than should be expected. The movie would have been a decent movie if I had not read the novel beforehand, which perhaps ruined it for me.

In any event, for some reason they changed the labor camp at Toulon to a ship full of galley slaves. The scene at Bishop Myriel's was fine. In fact, other than the galleys, things survived up until the dismissal of Fantine. Because we do not want to have bad things happen to a good woman, she does not cut her hair, sell her teeth, or become a prostitute. The worst she does is run into the mayor's office and spit on his face. Bamatabois is entirely eliminated. Because having children out of wedlock should also not be talked about, Tholomyes is Fantine's dead husband, rather than an irresponsible dandy. Valjean is able to fetch Cosette for Fantine before the Champmathieu affair, so they reunite happily, yet another change. Then comes the convent, which is a pretty difficult scene to screw up. Thankfully, it was saved. After this three minutes of accuracy, however, the movie again begins to hurtle towards Classic Novel Butchering.

As Cosette and Valjean are riding through the park, they come across Marius giving a speech at a meeting. About prison reform. When he comes to hand out fliers to Valjean and Cosette, he says the one line in the movie that set me screaming at the TV set. "We aren't revolutionaries." I could hear Victor Hugo thrashing in his grave. OF COURSE THEY ARE REVOLUTIONARIES! They want to revolt against the pseudo-monarchy that is in place in favor of another republic, you dumb screenwriters! It's a historical FACT that there was an insurrection against the government in 1832.

At one point Cosette goes to give Marius a donation from her father for the reform movement and meets Eponine. Except...not Eponine. Or at least not the Eponine of the book. This Eponine appears to be a well-to-do secretary girl working for the prison reformers (who are working out of the Cafe Universal as opposed to the Cafe Musain). Not to mention the audience is already made to dislike her thanks to her not-period, low-cut, tight-fitting dress and her snooty mannerisms.

The prison reformers (Lead by the most poorly cast Enjolras that I have EVER seen) decide that handing out pamphlets isn't good enough anymore. So they're going to build barricades. I don't know about you, but I have never heard of reform movements tearing up the streets and building barricades and attacking government troops. About three hundred people (it was not supposed to be so many) start attacking the National Guard and building a bunch of barricades, etc. Eponine does die for Marius, thankfully.

The rest of the movie is sort of accurate, except that Javert's suicide again seems hard to understand thanks to his minuscule screen time and odd character interpretation. The movie ends with Valjean watching Javert jump into the river. This is again inaccurate because Valjean would never have let Javert drown. He saved the man's life earlier, why let him die now? Then there's the whole skipping of Valjean's confession to Marius, his deterioration, and his redemption on his deathbed with Marius and Cosette by his side.

Overall, I can blame the script mostly for the problems. While I am glad Enjolras and Eponine were at least present in the film, they were terribly misinterpreted, as was the entire barricade scene. The elimination of Fantine's suffering prevents us from feeling too much pity for her. That Cosette knows Valjean's past from the start messes with the plot a good deal. I did not even see Thenardier, and Mme. Thenardier only had a few seconds of screen time. The same with Gavroche. I did like Frederich March's interpretation of Valjean a lot, however, which was one of the redeeming features of the movie. On the other hand, Charles Laughton, for all his great acting in other movies, seems to have missed the mark with Javert. The lip tremble, the unnecessary shouting, and his acting in general all just felt very wrong. He also, like many Javerts I have seen, did not appear at all menacing, something required of the character.

Again, this film would probably feel much better if I had not read the book. I would not recommend it to book purists, though. I would also say that the movie would have been a good adaptation for the time had not the infamously accurate French version come out the year before.
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7/10
Tolerable short cut version of one of the greatest novels
clanciai4 June 2016
I thought I had seen them all, but then as a surprise this one appeared with the blatant curiosity of Charles Laughton as Javert. Of course you couldn't miss such an opportunity, no matter what it purported.

Of course, it was worth seeing especially for Charles Laughton, who is an unusually nasty police here, a police of the very worst sort, all formality and no humanity, but he makes it amazingly convincing - there actually are such policemen. Frederic March is not bad as Jean Valjean, and for once, perhaps the only time in the cinema, you are able to see Jean Valjean as a young and handsome man - even his sister is with him in the introduction scene.

Cedric Hardwicke as the bishop, perhaps the most important character in the whole novel, doesn't have to make any effort into his part, it is all written and can't be made any worse by anyone, and he actually adds some humor to it, lacking in Victor Hugo.

The question has been raised what Victor Hugo would have thought. This film was made only a year after the great French masterpiece of five hours by Raymond Bernard, the best and truest film on "Les Miserables", although even that fools around with Hugo a bit, but this American version is unfortunately the worst. The character of Jean Valjean is missing, as Frederic March thoroughly overdoes it, while the very strength in the character lies in his absolute self control, which is spoilt here, compensated somewhat by Laughton's all too true performance. Worst is the child Cosette, who preludes Shirley Temple. John Beal as Marius is a positive surprise, while the important part of Gavroche is missing altogether.

Still it's an exciting film, it must be the most abbreviated version of "Les Miserables" ever made, and you pardon its gross coarseness and vulgarization of the novel since it's still after all the same novel, perhaps the greatest ever written. Victor Hugo would not have liked this film version much, especially not after the great French version the year before, but he would have tolerated it.
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9/10
Justice vs. the Law
mstomaso11 June 2011
Jean Valjean (Frederick March) steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister's children and is sent to prison for ten years. Prison degrades him and he completes his term a broken and, possibly insane, man. While in prison, one of the guards, Javert (Charles Laughton), takes note of Val jean's remarkable strength. Javert is more obviously unstable - he is obsessed with the rigid enforcement of the law, in denial of his past (his parents were criminals. Confused, depressed, and very fearful, Valjean ventures into his parole with questionable intentions. But he is soon taken in by a very kindly Bishop who bends the truth in order to protect Jean from himself and the police. Explaining himself, the priest tells Jean that 'Life is to give, not to take'. This single act, and the priest's words, set Valjean upon a path of service and honor which requires him to reinvent himself. In Act 2, we meet him in the person of Mssr. Madeline, a successful and well-loved businessman who is being asked to run for mayor in the small town he has done so much for. Complicating matters, Javert has been appointed to head the local constabulary.

Through all three parts of this epic story, Valjean is pursued by his former captor, whether by circumstance or obsessive intent. This is the central conflict of the story, but the depth and elements of the conflict truly hinge upon a non-participant third-party. Valjean/Madeline meets Cosette, a good-hearted but more-or-less orphan child whose plight reminds him of his sister's children and deeply touches his heart. He reunites Cosette and her mother, giving them both a good home for the mother's final weeks. After she passes, he essentially adopts Cosette. The love that develops between Cosette and Jean, that of a father and daughter, saves them both. Perhaps this love will eventually save the incorrigible and obsessed Javert.

Les Miserables is written with extremely powerful characterization, from a deeply Catholic/Christian perspective, though it is not an evangelical work. Although none of the characters are stereotypes, archetypes, or caricatures, the central conflict is not one of men, but rather one of faith. Javert perfectly represents faith in the laws of men, the Bishop reflects the laws of his god, and Valjean must resolve the inevitable conflicts between the two both internally and externally. The ethics of Les Miserables is, in contrast to the opinion of one popular review, far from 'situational.' It would be much better described as 'subtle', complex, and very carefully considered. The simple message is that law is no substitute for justice.

Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is probably my favorite novel of all time. While leaving whole episodes of this massive tome out, the unfortunately short-lived Richard Boleslawski's 1935 film captures more than just the essence and spirit of the book and is not a Reader's Digest condensation or a "Cliff Notes" version. The W.P. Lipscomb script is perfectly economical and Boleslawski wisely relied on Gregg Tolland's spectacular camera work to tell more of the story than the dialog. Despite the difficulty of distilling a 1000+ page, relatively dense French novel into a film of slightly over 1.5 hours, the director made the camera responsible for conveying a great deal of information about the story and the characters . The casting is also quite perfect. March and Laughton are tremendous in what may be the apex of their collaborative efforts. I was also impressed by the performances in a few of the minor roles - Cedric Hardwicke (the Bishop) and Frances Drake (Eponine) especially.

All considered, this film should appeal to those who appreciate mature, intelligent, morality plays spiced up with a bit of adventure, and those who are looking for a good film version of the classic novel.
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10/10
brilliant
disdressed124 July 2010
not having read the classic novel by Victor Hugo,i can't comment on how faithful this film was to the source,but as for the film itself,i found it simply brilliant.the acting is superb all around,but Fredric March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton as Javert,are stellar.the story itself is very well written and directed.redemption is the main theme and and that is illustrated very powerfully on more than one occasion,none more so than the last scene,in my opinion,although there is a certain amount of irony as well.in short,i loved this film,and would highly recommend it those who have a taste for classic cinema.for me,Les misérables is a perfect 10/10
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6/10
Good, but the 1933 version is much better
tonstant viewer5 July 2008
Advantages here: Charles Laughton's Javert, Gregg Toland's cinematography, um, um.........

This film was made by 20th Century as a remake of the French version of two years earlier. The French version totals five hours in all, which allows a more grownup script, a better sense of pace, a fuller exploration of the characters and a more authentic flavor all around.

There is something vaguely infantile about this version and Fredric March has about as much European savor as corn-on-the-cob. Charles Laughton unbalances the film with his famous portrayal of the obsessed cop Javert, and the film becomes about his agony, not Jean Valjean's, which is wrong.

The Raymond Bernard film from 1933 is available now in a two-DVD set, and is the closest you can get on film to the experience of actually reading the book, which is long and spacious and worth it. Certain individual scenes are done better in other versions, but the Bernard film is the best overall.
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5/10
This is not the best adaptation of Les Miserables
jesusib27 January 2005
In my opinion, this version is far from being the best adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic and marvelous novel; these are my reasons: The Thernardiers, indispensable characters in the story, are relegated in the film to mere incidental figures. Their little son Gavroche does not even appear. Their daughter Eponine appears, but she has nothing to do with them, she is only a friend of Marius, in love with him. Fauchelevent also appears as an incidental character, when Jean Valejan saves him from dying; he does not appear when Valjean and Cosette arrive to the Petit-Picpus convent. The film does not end as the original story. Much better versions are the French ones directed in 1934 by Raymond Bernard, starring Harry Baur as Jean Valjean, and the 1982 directed by Robert Hossein, starring Lino Ventura as Jean Valjean.
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9/10
Great Version Unspoiled by Musical Hogwash
sh33na13 January 2013
I will never understand why people insist on ruining a perfectly wonderful story by making it into some indecipherable and mostly unwatchable musical. Those who do such should be sentenced to 20 years hard labor. This movie is wonderful, and portrayed the story as Hugo intended, I am sure.

There are many versions of Les Misérables. This is definitely one worth watching. If you have ever wondered what the entire story is, read the entire Hugo writing; second best, watch this movie. Charles Laughton is wonderful in his same pudgy sissy/bully role that he usually plays. Frederick March is, indeed, a star.
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6/10
See it for Fredric March
Pierremont23 March 2019
There are a couple of gorgeous scenes in this film. Valjean's awakening is an absolutely transcendent moment. But overall, everything is way too rushed and compressed for my taste. The story rarely has any opportunity to breathe. If this version has anything going for it, it's Fredric March's exceptionally intelligent performance as Jean Valjean.

One huge turnoff for me is something that I frequently encounter whenever I watch period flicks from the 1930s and 40s. Apart from Fredric March, the actors all deliver their lines in a highly stylized accent which completely takes me out of the story. I didn't buy any of them as 19th century French people..... there wasn't a moment when I wasn't aware that I was watching a Hollywood production from 1935. Charles Laughton has this posh voice which is so completely wrong for a character like Javert, for a character with the kind of upbringing that he's had. The guy is supposed to have been born in a jail and raised by gypsies, and Laughton talks like someone in a Noel Coward play. However, he is so present emotionally that I can overlook it to a certain extent. The kid who plays young Cosette is godawful. She is so earnest and fakey and sounds like she came from somewhere in Nebraska.
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