TCM aired a version of Les Miserables the other week that I had not previously seen: the1935 Darryl Zanuck production starring Fredric March as the fugitive, Jean Valjean, and Charles Laughton as the relentless officer, Javert.
March and Laughton as the fugitive and the inspector, respectivelyValjean, a woodcutter stricken by poverty in 18th century France, is sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's children. He becomes a rather cynical man during his sentence and upon release begins to prey on others in order to survive. After he steals from a very forgiving bishop, Valjean begins a life of kindness and self-sacrifice that we see throughout the rest of the film.
Another man who is shaped by the prison system is Javert, who is rising in the ranks of the constabulary and seems to want to rid himself of the shame of having had law-breakers for parents. His interest in capturing Valjean, who has broken parole, goes beyond restoring order. He's intrigued by this man who consistently shows mercy.
In general, Valjean is such an understanding character, he can easily be portrayed in movies as a guy who rarely makes a wrong a move [see the 1978 version]. Because you know he's not going to do anything wrong, the wily Javert tends to be more interesting.
In this version, however, we see Valjean struggling several times with what he should do and what he'd rather do. For instance, after the bishop is kind to him and does not turn him in for stealing silver, the movie lets Valjean take a walk in the hills to think over the compassion he's just been shown. He himself then chooses to become a kind man in cruel world.
Because of the time shortage in most movies, Valjean usually makes this decision instantly, which always seems rushed to me. This version takes its time with Valjean's epiphany, which is a wise choice since his total change of mind and heart is the hinge upon which the rest of the story swings.
Laughton's Javert has been lauded, as it should be. This is a sympathetic villain, a man, much like the prisoners he guards, who is trapped by his own sense of hopelessness. Still, I find Laughton is winking at the camera too much - the quivering lip when discussing his humble origins, the resolute stance as he contemplates suicide. It's as though he's reaching out to the audience for sympathy for this character, when Hugo (as well as W.P. Liscomb, the screenwriter) already has that built in. Laughton is not as subtle as he should be [ I can't believe I'm giving acting tips to the great Charles Laughton!].
The rest of the story tracks Valjean through his many years on the run from Javert, his many changes of place and name, and the many people he has helped (often to his own detriment). One such person is an orphaned girl named Cosette, whom Valjean has promised to raise.
When the adult Cosette falls for a young man named Marius, we are treated to another of Valjean's struggles with his own selfishness. Some film versions make Cosette's marriage inevitable from Valjean's point of view and he just kind of goes with the flow. In this version, he chastises his daughter for wanting to leave him and indicates that he himself wants to marry Cosette. I couldn't believe it!
Overprotective parent?From what I remember of the novel, Valjean is a protective father figure who simply has a case of Empty Nest Syndrome. I do not remember any sexual tension between this man and his adopted daughter in the book. It's really kind of creepy and unexpected, which makes this version intriguing. Still, this turn of events makes the otherwise nice Valjean seem like a total perv and makes his kindness towards the child suspect. Perhaps they shouldn't have ruined the protagonist's credibility so close to the end of the film.
However, this blip in their relationship makes Cosette a tad more interesting than she usually is in films. Instead of being just a charming candy floss of a woman oblivious to danger, she is given some heavy drama to play. Rochelle Hudson's portrayl of Cosette in these scenes clearly shows how tortured the lady is in having to choose between the two men in her life.
Zanuck's Les Miserables seeks to give Valjean the layers he has in the novel, and in some cases the movie succeeds. This is especially remarkable since it's a story with two complicated leads, a scene-chewing villain and comes in at just over 90 minutes.