The always reliable Fredric March and Charles Laughton deliver excellent performances in the 1935 version of “Les Misérables.” March plays Jean Valjean, who is sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Laughton plays a policeman in charge of the gallies, where the court sends convicted criminals to suffer as they row endlessly all day and sleep in their rags on a hard wooden floor. Laughton, who plays Inspector Javert, flogs prisoners for the slightest offense, claiming to follow the law to the letter. Valjean serves ten years before he gains a very restrictive parole; he can’t travel and must report to the police regularly.
Outside the prison, the population shuns Valjean. He can’t buy food or find a place to sleep. Desperate, he goes to a church, where a kindly bishop treats him with unconditional love and respect. But Valjean steals the church’s silver plates, sells them and disappears into a new identity as Champmathieu. He runs a successful factory and becomes the mayor of his new town. But Javert never stops hunting him down.
When Valjean’s adopted daughter becomes involved with a radical student, he must decide whether to fight or run. Javert continues to close in and decisions must be made, but fate intervenes to drive the story to its conclusion. Laughton, who plays strident and evil characters so well, stays resourceful and cunning throughout the movie. The novel by Victor Hugo can can examine motivations in detail; the movie relies on visuals and performance. Based on Laughton’s performance, I didn’t quite buy Javert’s decision at the end of the film. However, the acting by March and Laughton remain the best reason to see this movie.
Although I haven’t seen the most recent operatic movie version of Les Misérables, the story doesn’t particularly seem like it would be benefitted by being sung. The 1935 version stars two great actors, but I doubt either one of them could sing very well. All those knowing looks by Laughton provide a meaning far deeper than words, so even though March’s Jean Valjean talks quite a bit throughout the film, Laughton’s Javert provides an excellent contrast by speaking in clipped sentences and shouting his words. Richard Boleslawski, the director, worked with an impressive group of actors during his career, including Marlene Dietrich, Melvyn Douglas, Joan Crawford, Irene Dunne and Ronald Colman.