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Star of the Month: Fredric March
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Remind Me

Les Miserables (1935)

Starting with the Lumiere brothers' 1897 one-reeler, there have been 40-odd adaptations of Victor Hugo's epic novel, Les Miserables, including two from France that mimic the book's gargantuan scale - Henri Fescourt's 359-minute silent (1925) and Raymond Bernard's 305-minute sound film (1934). Since its publication in 1862, the book has never been out of print. The masses immediately embraced it and haven't stopped - not surprising since they're the book's ultimate heroes. The current musical stage version, source of the most recent film, has been running for years. So, a bewildering array. But if you haven't seen any of them, and want to choose one, make it the 1935 Les Miserables starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton and directed by Richard Boleslawski.

It simply gives us more of the book's core, unfurled like a banner, draped over an intelligent 108-minute screenplay by W.P. Lipscomb that seems a small miracle of concision. Hugo's themes and gigantic clashing antagonists emerge intact, with their inner selves revealed as well at their outer. The social protest couldn't be more explicit, especially in its outcry for ameliorating harsh penal codes. And yet the film makes clear that there is a moral dimension to Les Miserables and moral distinctions that most adaptations miss. It gives the actors that much more to work with and the film is richer with both actors integrating them into their characters.

March has the tougher assignment because he plays goodness in action, never as much fun as evil carried to deranged levels in the name of good by Laughton's deranged Inspector Javert. The latter spends decades bulldogging March's rehabbed prisoner, Jean Valjean, so he can throw Valjean back in prison on a technicality. Valjean becomes a criminal when he's caught stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her baby. His sentence? Ten years as a galley slave. Not that his troubles are over when the ten years are up. Upon being released, he's given a special passport identifying him as an ex-con. Nobody will hire him, or rent him a room. In effect, he's stigmatized, guilty for life.

Bitter, he's given lodging by a bishop who practices the Christianity he preaches (played with gravitas and wisdom by Cedric Hardwicke). He repays his host's generosity by stealing the latter's silverware. When he's caught and brought before the bishop, the latter says he gave Valjean the silver, and throws in a pair of candlesticks. This is where the film falters. Entering the bishop's bedroom at night, he's struck by how the moon lights the sleeping cleric's face. Stumbling away from the bishop's house gratefully with the silver, he stops at an outdoor crucifix. And to the accompaniment of an angelic chorus, he experiences a spiritual renewal. On the whole, a bit too clunkily pietistic and cloying.

Still, it turns him around. Five years later, under an assumed identity, he has built a prosperous glass factory. His good works lead to his being elected mayor and magistrate. Javert's motivation is laid out more vividly. His father was a convict and his mother was a prostitute. But he's a hard worker and overcomes his low origins to become a cop. His boss overlooks his beginnings. But Javert can't. He becomes a maniacal stickler for following the letter of the law, not from a love of justice, but to discharge his rage and self-loathing. When he's posted to the town where the disguised Valjean is mayor, they soon clash. And Javert, suspicious, starts digging, determined to bring him down.

There was no more distinguished actor of the '30s and '40s than March. No other actor has won two Oscars® (for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931 and The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946) and two Tonys (Years Ago in 1947 and Long Day's Journey Into Night in 1957). His roles were often derived from literary sources or classics. He made decent and even heroic men come alive, never allowing them to perish under a pall of worthiness. Here, he's often photographed in full of three-quarter profile. But he never just lets his leading-man profile do the work. In scene after scene his eyes flash with sensitivity and sentience. He's a man with a keen eye for injustice, and the will and means to fight it, as his life is more and more touched by the political turmoil of the times.

Javert doesn't hesitate when Valjean asks him if he ever tempers justice with mercy. "No," he spits in reply. Laughton never needed anyone to tell him how to act with his eyes, and much of the time they're the only animated feature in his sallow pudding of a face. The '30s were a brilliant period for Laughton, too. Here, he wisely underplays Javert, a character whose extreme ways never need italicizing. And Laughton knows just where to go with the masochistic part of Javert's sado-masochistic nature. The only time Javert comes close to losing it is when he demands that a mistake he made requires the mayor to dismiss him. Valjean refuses to. The moment is repeated in a larger context after the angry crowd seizes him during a riot and hands him over to Valjean, who promptly unties him, upon which Javert goes ballistic. He can't forgive Valjean for forgiving him, can't stand being outclassed by the man whose nemesis he was. When he breaks, he does so with features frozen save for a slight quiver of his meaty lower lip.

March and Laughton aren't the whole film, but they're most of it. Florence Eldridge, March's real-life wife, turns up as Fantine, the woman he rescues from Javert's wrath and whose illegitimate daughter he adopts. Director Boleslawski's attention to detail reinforces the belief that the world lost a superior talent when the Polish director died at 48. After working with Stanslavski, he and Maria Ouspenskaya founded the forerunner of The Group Theater and The Actors Studio. His Hollywood films included Rasputin and the Empress (1932) with John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore, Men in White (1934) with Clark Gable, The Painted Veil (1934) with Greta Garbo, The Garden of Allah (1936) with Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer and The Last of Mrs. Cheyney (1937) with Joan Crawford and William Powell. I'd like to think it was his idea to dress the have-nots in Les Miserables in rags and tatters while the uniformed police are dressed like Napoleonic field marshals.

By Jay Carr

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