Efficiently condensed by scenarist W. P. Lipscomb from Victor Hugo’s mammoth 1862 novel exposing social injustice, Les Misérables—note the Hollywood hybrid here: the accent, yes, but the upper-case “m”—is a grand, engrossing thing. It is the highest screen attainment of Richard Boleskawski, born Boleslaw Ryszard Srzednicki—a Pole, who trained at the Moscow Art Theater, and who has suffused the film with intense feeling, including religious feeling, that might pass for either Polish or Russian. Early on, the profuse appearances of the Christian cross—whether directly in a sculpture, or indirectly in formations of window lattices, wood beams, shadows, etc.—are strictly associated with Christian suffering, for instance, Jean Valjean’s decade-long ordeal as a galleys prisoner; curiously, Boleslawski seems uninterested in resurrecting this imagery for any aspect of Valjean’s redemption, or even Inspector Javert’s ultimate redemption after a lifetime of hounding Valjean in the name of the law—perhaps feeling that Javert’s suicide denies him any claim to God’s eternal embrace. I hope not. In any case, Boleslawski himself would be dead, of cardiac arrest at 47, in less than two years.
Valjean’s crime: stealing a loaf of bread so that his sister and her children wouldn’t starve. How all this must have resonated with audiences during the Depression. Indeed, the American public had already warmly embraced an uncredited contemporary version of Hugo’s book, Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).
It is Bishop Bienvenu (Cedric Hardwicke, briefly wonderful), who alone gives Valjean lodgings upon his release from the galleys. The bishop, whose silver Valjean steals, enabling his future, thus provides Valjean his lifelong credo: “Life is to give, not to take.” By dying, Fantine, Cosette’s mother, frees daughter Cosette, whom Valjean raises, for a life of her own.
France’s year-earlier Raymond Bernard version is beautifully acted by Harry Baur and Charles Vanel as Valjean and Javert. In Boleslawski’s version, Fredric March is a fine, occasionally excellent Valjean, while Charles Laughton is a consistently brilliant Javert. Unlike Bernard’s version, the grown Cosette is played exquisitely here, by Rochelle Hudson.
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