Today! Because I will take you in the end! You know I will!
Les Miserables (1935)
Directed by Richard Boleslawski
Starring Fredric March, Charles Laughton (x2), Cedric Hardwicke, Florence Eldridge, Rochelle Hudson, John Beal, Frances Drake, Jessie Ralph (x2), Ferdinand Gottschalk, Jane Kerr, John Carradine (x2)
Still the best film version of Victor Hugo’s novel (even if it lops off the final quarter of the story), 1935’s Les Miserables brings the 1,100 page novel in under two hours, and manages to cover pretty much the whole main plot. If you’re a huge fan of the book or the musical – and come on, who isn’t? – there is plenty glossed over and lost along the way, but if this story has always basically boiled down to Valjean v. Javert, this is the film version for you. Plus, no Russell Crowe singing!
Two of the previous four Best Actor Oscar winners got recruited to head up the epic 20th Century Pictures production – released a mere month before their merger with Fox – with March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) as Valjean and Laughton (The Private Life of Henry VIII) as Javert, and as per the novel, they do not get along! Really, the film’s differences with the source material more center around scaling down the opening sequences – Florence Eldridge’s Fantine gets short shrift, whereas Anne Hathaway would win an Oscar 77 years later for the same role – and cutting the story short. In fairness, I recall other movie adaptations ending where this one does – dramatically, playing out the battle at the barricade and Valjean’s final showdown with Javert works as a better finale than the book’s conclusion. Plus, going forward without Laughton, whose presence in the film is so massive that he has a tendency to swallow the air out of scenes, seems almost unthinkable. As effective as March is as the lead, this is largely Laughton’s film, right down to the choice to scale back of the scope of the story.
The 2012 version almost snuck onto the list here, too – it is forever held back by Crowe – and even to this day sits staring at me from #401, just south of Rocky’s battle with the Russian.
They make an interesting pair – ’35 and ’12 – as one of the few paired adaptations to both garner Best Picture nominations – along with some Mutiny on the Bountys, Romeo and Juliets, and Moulin Rouges, among others. But it only received technical recognition beyond that – maybe the leads cancelled each other out? That year’s Mutiny did snag three of the Best Actor spots, including one for Laughton’s Bligh, so he didn’t go completely empty handed.
Les Miserables was one of the first Broadway shows I saw – ’95 or ’96, I think – but I had read the book prior to that, because that’s the sort of cool ass teenager I was. And so this movie always had an appeal for me – there were other, gloomy versions along the way, the Liam Neeson/Geoffrey Rush one jumps to mind, but ’35 has just enough Hollywood gloss and melodrama to make the epic story work in that old studio system. Good job, Zanuck and company!
Charles Laughton (spliced into #302 Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), Jessie Ralph (#303 After the Thin Man), and John Carradine (#333 The Hound of the Baskervilles) all make the Two-Timers today! And while Laughton and Carradine may ring some faint bells for you, I bet you’re not overly familiar with the career of Jessie Ralph, and so she gets that spotlight!
Oh, and the calendar seems to indicate it’s Thanksgiving! Happy Thanksgiving! Jeez, this is kinda late for Thanksgiving, isn’t it? Am I looking at the right calendar??