Sunday, March 17, 2013

Les Miserables (1934)

Director: Raymond Bernard                              Writer: Raymond Bernard
Film Score: Arthur Honegger                            Cinematography: Jules Kruger
Starring: Harry Baur, Charles Vanel, Florelle Rousseau and Gaby Triquet

This is the first, and arguably the best, version of Les Miserables. It doesn’t hurt that the production is French and that, at four hours and forty minutes, it’s easily the most thorough production that has ever been distributed. (Apparently the six-hour French miniseries with Gerard Depardieu is unavailable in its complete form in the US.) Regardless, this is a powerful film, well executed for the time period, with a great cast, an interesting score, and a reputation that is well deserved.

If there are any negatives, one is the fact that Harry Baur makes a rather incongruous Jean Valjean, as he is extremely rotund. The fact that he could have been working hard labor for fourteen years doesn’t seem likely with his figure. The other is Charles Vanel’s lack of screen time in the production. It doesn’t give him time to develop the same kind of obsession with Valjean that he does in other versions. In fact, in the first section of the film, he rarely comes off as menacing at all. In this, the 1998 version with Geoffrey Rush is far superior. The acting of Florelle, as Fantine, is a bit stylized, though she has some powerful moments. But it’s Gaby Triquet as the young Cosette who is the standout in the first half of the film. While a bit practiced, her performance is captivating and her eyes hypnotic.

Easily the best part of the film is the production itself. The traveling dolly shots are quite good. The lighting, especially in the night scenes, is luminescent. There are also plenty of tilted angle shots as well that identify the film as European. The production design is also very nice. The exteriors are impeccably done, and the studio exteriors mesh seamlessly. Another nice touch is that the interiors have a gritty realism that is absent in a lot of historical dramas. Finally, there is an actual film score by the famed composer Arthur Honegger. Full scores for film were just beginning to be use in this period and the music itself is most welcome, though there are still long sections of the film that are devoid of music in the way of most early talkies. Just a year later, Hollywood attempted their own version with Frederick March, good in it's own way, but probably not on par overall.

One of the considerations facing any screenwriter in attempting to condense Victor Hugo’s lengthy novel, is just what to keep and what to leave out. Because of the length of Bernard’s version, he has more options here. The film is broken into three parts, and the first part is nearly the same as in all the other versions. In part two, however, he makes some interesting stylistic choices that definitely set the film apart from later, shorter, versions. Part three, again, does a nice job with the climax that we all await with anticipation. There is much to admire in this first, French version of Les Miserables, and the restored print available on DVD with English subtitles it is very watchable. In addition, a World War I film by Bernard called Wooden Crosses is included in the set. Both films come highly recommended.

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