Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Video Vault: Les Miserables

Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

In advance of Christmas Day's release of the new musical version of "Les Miserables," Vault took advantage of Turner Classic Movies' idea to show three prior versions of the film last week.  TCM decided to show the 1934 French version, the Academy Award nominated 1935 take and another from 1952.
"Cosette" by Emile Bayard (1862)

Now, Vault knows some people who are Les Miscreants.  That is, they love, love, love this story.  They've seen the massively successful Broadway production, own the soundtrack and have at one time or another had the poster just to the right....  On their wall.

Vault had missed it all AND did not want to go and see the new feature film musical wrapped in ignorance.  I had the distinct feeling it would be like going to an opera and not knowing what all the singing was about. 

So I settled in last week and did my due diligence.  All for you, dear reader.  Let the Voice of the Mountain be your libretto.

For the unwashed - I am now not among the unwashed, but for those of you who still ARE - Victor Hugo's epic novel was first published in 1862 and follows the life of an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, from 1815 to the June Rebellion of 1832.  The main story arc follows Valjean's road to redemption even while he is hounded over the years by the relentless Inspector Javert, who is intent on putting parole violator Valjean back in prison.

Various set-pieces propel the story, which is usually divided into three phases of the life of the protagonist.  First is a feat of heroic strength for which the prisoner is paroled.  Second is when the hero receives a great kindness from a priest and rises to prominence under an assumed name and, risking everything, he saves a wrongly accused man from conviction.  The third is when he rescues Cosette's love, a young French rebel, from the barricades.

Throughout, Valjean's legendary strength and character are called into play.  The primary subplot involves a single mother, Fantine, who struggles to support a child, Cosette, who has been left in the care of the villainous Thenardieres.  The vile innkeeper and his screeching wife have no end of extorting the impoverished Fantine.  It is the general corruption of the society at large that pits itself so heavily against the mighty shoulders of the incorruptible Valjean, who swears to protect Cosette as a father.

It IS a great story, one of the longest (1800 pages or so) in the history of the (translated to English) language, and one reduced innumerable times to celluloid.

Top Class: Harry Baur (1934)
And in my time perusing the TCM films, I found the earliest one to be the best.  Running nearly 5 hours in length, it hews the most closely to the novel and benefits immensely from such texture and detail.  Each character, from Harry Baur's (at left) incomperable performance as Valjean to the threadbare Florelle (Fantine) and the waifish child Josseline Gael (Cosette), can scarcely be rivaled.  In fact, there is a brief sequence in this French version where the child seems to walk right out of Bayard's haunting rendering (above) from the original novel.

Charles Laughton as Javert (1935)
The 1935 adaptation starred Fredric March as the hero and Charles Laughton as Javert.  Running only two hours, by comparison, it hardly leaves enough time for the characters to be fleshed out.  The actors have to do a lot in a little time and the film suffers.  Further, Laughton's very round face struggles to carry the hardness of such a driven character even while his acting prowess is equal to the complex, dynamic role.

The 1952 version starring Michael Rennie leaves even more film on the cutting room floor at 105 minutes.  And while Rennie cuts a dashing figure and the film has some charms, it is as if you're watching the Cliff's Notes version on fast forward.

All that said, I am sure most of us in this fast paced world don't have enough time to slow down for a 5 hour feature film.  Therefore, you may, armed with this information, be ready for Hugh Jackman in the lead and Russell Crowe as Javert.  Frankly, that sounds like a top notch pairing.  And at 157 minutes, it may have just enough broth to make soup.

Until next time.  Enjoy!

Shawn K. Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.

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