Monday, September 14, 2009
When I saw Richard Boleslawski's Les Misérables (1935) recently I was mighty impressed. Nominated for an Oscar as best picture, the film was called by David Thomson "the best version of Hugo's novel," and Dave at Goodfella's Movie Blog, who is doing a year-by-year countdown of the best movies of each year, named this his own pick as the best movie of 1935, citing many of the things about it that I found praiseworthy. The movie simplifies Victor Hugo's massive novel but retains most of its essential themes and still manages to cover a lot of narrative ground in under two hours. The movie opens with Jean Valjean (Fredric March) in court, being sentenced to ten years' hard labor in the galleys for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's children. His heartfelt plea to the unsympathetic judge about being unable to find work anywhere and the inhumanity of letting children starve must have had a powerful resonance with Depression-era audiences.
At the same time, Inspector Javert (Charles Laughton), the son of criminals, is receiving his commission—but, because of his questionable background, only through the kindness of a sympathetic official. Ironically, his response to this act of kindness is to systematically purge any manifestation of human kindness from himself. Javert swears always to uphold the letter of the law, becoming an emotionless human law enforcement machine. He is assigned to the galley where Valjean is serving his sentence, and it is here that the two become lifelong antagonists.
Valjean is finally released a broken and disillusioned man. Shunned by society, he is given shelter one night by a kindly and trusting bishop (Cedric Hardwicke). When Valjean steals the bishop's silver plate and absconds in the night, he is caught by the local gendarmes. But the bishop insists that he gave Valjean the silver and even adds to the takings a pair of silver candlesticks. This act of faith and kindness by the bishop transforms Valjean's life. Those silver candlesticks become the emblem of forgiveness, trust, and the bishop's admonition to Valjean always to treat others with kindness and dignity. Valjean keeps those candlesticks with him always, and they are conspicuously displayed in many scenes throughout the movie.
The rest of the movie follows Valjean through several successive stages of his life. At each stage a chance encounter with Javert forces him to flee and assume a new identity, leading to a new life. (As an ex-convict, he has broken the conditions of his release by not reporting to the police and is considered a fugitive who will be returned to prison if caught.) He becomes first the prosperous owner of a glass factory. Then as the surrogate father of an orphaned child he has adopted, Cosette (Rochelle Hudson), he pretends to be a gardener at the convent where she is being educated, and finally in Paris impersonates a rich retired merchant. It is here that Cosette becomes involved with student radicals pressing, among other things, for prison reform during the 1832 uprising. By this point Javert is a member of the secret police ferreting out revolutionaries and again discovers Valjean.
At the end of the movie, Valjean must resolve several personal and ethical dilemmas. He plans to use the disorder of the rebellion as an opportunity to escape with Cosette to England and finally be free of Javert. But Cosette wants to stay behind with Marius, the leader of the student revolutionaries, with whom she has fallen in love. Valjean must face the truth about his true feelings for the now-grown Cosette, and it is clear that these are more than just fatherly. He makes two difficult decisions in rapid succession. He saves Marius from the gendarmes on the barricades rather than using the occasion to rid himself of a romantic rival. And when given the opportunity to kill his nemesis Javert with impunity, he lets him go free instead.
In Valjean and Javert, we have two men of a strikingly similar mindset. Both are men of strong principles who stay true to those principles in every situation despite their personal feelings. The conflict of the story arises from the fact that those two sets of principles stand in direct opposition to each other. Valjean represents tolerance, forgiveness, and adaptability of rules to circumstances. Javert represents inflexibility, obsessive pursuit of the guilty, and the merciless punishment of transgressors. Each is in a sense the product of his experiences. The bishop's treatment of Valjean has instilled in the embittered ex-convict a deep-rooted humanity, whereas Javert's shame at his origins has caused him to repress all feelings of humanity, transforming him into an inhumane fanatic.
One of the reasons Les Misérables succeeds so well at examining the paradoxical relationship between these two men is the performances of the two leads. Laughton has the smaller and clearly less sympathetic role. Yet he makes the character of Javert far more than the two-dimensional martinet he might have been. Psychologically, his Javert is an example of the type of individual attracted to totalitarianism: In his slavish devotion to conformity and rectitude, he voluntarily surrenders freedom of thought to a higher authority in order to escape the responsibility and risk of making his own decisions. His actions are always reflexive and unquestioning.
Laughton conveys the unyielding self-control Javert must exert to suppress all feelings of empathy for those he pursues and the enormous personal cost—the forgoing of any possibility of meaningful emotional growth—of adhering so single-mindedly to a set of principles. And he suggests that Javert's almost pathological need to control criminality is actually an attempt to destroy in others what he regards with dread as potential flaws in his own character—a sort of pre-emptive strike against self-corruption. His Javert is outwardly a self-assured professional dedicated to the law. But inwardly he is a deeply insecure man equally afraid of both his baser and his finer impulses and terrified of the dangerous possibility of loss of control over himself. That Laughton was in real life a gay man living and working in an environment where he was obliged to conceal his sexual orientation adds an extra dimension to the element of emotional repression in his interpretation of Javert.
Laughton, an actor prone to overemoting (David Thomson attributes to him "some of the most recklessly flamboyant characterizations the screen has ever seen"), gives one of his most subdued performances. It is amazing to think that in the same year this picture was released, he also played the Jeeves-like Ruggles in Ruggles of Red Gap and the nefarious Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty. In temperament his Javert falls somewhere between those two characters, balancing the unfailing self-control of Ruggles with the cold hatefulness of Captain Bligh.
Even more impressive is Fredric March as Jean Valjean. The more I see of March in his movies of the 1930s, the more convinced I am that he is the pre-eminent American movie actor of that decade. He is expert at both comedy—in films like Lubitsch's Design for Living and Wellman's Nothing Sacred (interestingly, he turned down It Happened One Night)—and drama. In serious films like this one, his Oscar-winning turn in Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Anthony Adverse, and especially A Star Is Born, he conveys depth, sensitivity, focus, and superior modulation of technique without ever becoming self-consciously actorly. His artistry is closer to the surface than in purely naturalistic, instinctive actors of the time like Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable—not surprising in a trained stage actor who alternated between films and the theater for much of his long career. But nothing about his movie performances ever seems stilted.
March portrays Valjean as a character whose personality evolves during the course of the movie as the result of his experiences. His Valjean is a man who begins with an innate sense of decency and caring (you can see this in his incomprehension of the impersonal cruelty of the law in the opening sequence), only to see those qualities nearly crushed by his treatment at the hands of a soul-destroying social and legal system. Yet those qualities are never quite extinguished even by his dehumanizing experiences in a brutal penal environment. The bishop's act of kindness is enough to rekindle in him his vestigial humanity, setting him on a course of lifelong growth.
March's interpretation of Valjean really makes you sense the continuous refinement and ennobling of the character's personality. As Valjean refuses to let any of the setbacks he suffers destroy the sensitivity at his core, March shows you the character growing stronger and more whole year by year. It is by any measure an extraordinary performance, the best by an actor I've seen in any American film released that year: Just when you think the character of Valjean is fully defined, March adds yet another layer.
Besides those two key performances, Les Misérables has several other things to recommend it. For one thing, it was photographed by perhaps the greatest of all Hollywood cinematographers, Gregg Toland, a man with one of the most identifiable visual styles of the studio era. His accomplished use of highly defined light and shadow, one of the constants of his style, is used here not for stylized effect, as it is in Citizen Kane, but rather for a softer look that realistically simulates natural lighting, particularly in indoor scenes and in outdoor scenes that take place at night. Toland does, however, go for a more emphatic, almost expressionistic look in one sequence in which Valjean is pursued through the sewers of Paris, a sequence reminiscent of the famous sewer chase in The Third Man but which predates that film by nearly 15 years. Toland received a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work in Les Misérables and probably was set to win. But he unexpectedly lost to Hal Mohr for A Midsummer Night's Dream, a write-in candidate—the only time a write-in candidate has ever won an Oscar.
The director was Richard Boleslawski, who died at the age of 47 just two years after this movie was released. Born in Poland, Boleslawski studied acting at the Moscow Art Theater and was for several years its assistant director before coming to New York in the 1920s, where he directed plays on Broadway and taught the Stanislavksi style of acting he had learned in Russia (forerunner of Method acting) to students like Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. He came to Hollywood in 1929 and directed all kinds of movies but especially glossy, big-budget pictures like The Painted Veil with Greta Garbo and The Garden of Allah with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer. He also made comedies like Operator 13 with Marion Davies, the delightful screwball comedy Theodora Goes Wild with Irene Dunne, and his final film, The Last of Mrs. Cheney, with an all-star MGM cast that included William Powell, Robert Montgomery, and Joan Crawford.
With such a varied output, Boleslawski would never be considered an auteur by devotees of that concept and isn't even mentioned in Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema. But he does an exemplary studio-style job on Les Misérables, forging into a professional if slightly impersonal whole the diverse technical and artistic elements necessary for a successful literary adaptation in 1930s Hollywood—production design, acting, staging, and rather formalistic composition. Toland's trademark deep-focus photography is little in evidence here. Boleslawski prefers to use focus to emphasize people and objects in the foreground. He is adept at action sequences like the nighttime escape of Valjean and Cosette in a horse-drawn cart with Javert and a group of horsemen in pursuit, as well as intimate scenes and conversations. Especially striking is his staging of scenes of the uprising in the streets of Paris near the end of the movie. These have the complicated composition, spatial organization, and choreographed chaos of paintings on similar subjects by Delacroix.
The history of 1930s Hollywood contains many examples of adaptations of classic novels by European authors—movies like David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights—the ultimate prestige project of the Hollywood studios of the time. Les Misérables is in all respects an exemplar of this kind of movie and easily holds its own with the best of the genre. There is nothing stodgy about the movie. It tells a thoughtful, compelling story in a dynamic way, with brisk pacing (especially in the first section, with its rapid succession of concise scenes that quickly propel the movie through ten years of narrative), meticulous production values, and forceful performances by two of the major actors of the 1930s at the top of their form.