Fredric March gives a superb performance as the sensitive, persecuted Jean Valjean who steals a loaf of bread to survive, is captured, and given ten years' hard labor. When he finally escapes the prison galley, March is a hardbitten, unsympathetic character, all compassion hammered out of
him by the rigors of confinement. He is taken in by Bishop Bienvenu, played by Cedric Hardwicke, who refuses to prosecute him for stealing two silver candlesticks. Through Hardwicke's kindness and understanding, March regains his sensitive nature and is reformed. He builds a new life for himself
under an assumed name and adopts a young child as his own. He becomes a well-to-do businessman, and, moving to another town, becomes so widely liked and respected that he is elected mayor, an office which helps him devote his life to benefiting others. Charles Laughton, as Javert, the town's chief
of police, is a cold, unimpassioned official, single-minded in his view that the law is to be upheld and enforced at all costs, with no mercy shown to anyone committing the slightest infraction. Laughton and March clash repeatedly over the interpretation of the law, and the policeman becomes
incensed when March intercedes on behalf of a social pariah (Florence Eldridge, March's real-life wife). One day March sees a villager trapped beneath a heavy wagon, and, with what seems to be superhuman strength, he puts his back to the wagon and lifts it so the man can be saved. Laughton watches
this feat and is reminded of a galley prisoner he once encountered. He investigates March's past and identifies March as Jean Valjean, the wanted criminal. He is then confused when another prisoner is found, a mindless inmate who amazingly resembles March and who claims to be Jean Valjean. The
impostor is put on trial, but the honorable March (who plays both parts) admits that he is the real Jean Valjean. Before he can be jailed, he again escapes with his daughter (Frances Drake) to Paris where he assumes yet another identity.
This lavish production is full of meticulous detail, and, with the exception of the ending, faithful to Victor Hugo's novel. (Valjean dies in the original tale.) Richard Boleslawski (RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS, THE PAINTED VEIL), a largely forgotten director today, was masterful in his handling of
LES MISERABLES, adhering closely to Hugo's scenes and working diligently from W.P. Lipscomb's compact 108-minute script, which is literate and moving. March gives one of his greatest performances as the hunted victim Jean Valjean, far superior to the rendering of the character in a French version
in 1936, or in the crude 1918 silent version (also made by Fox, and starring William Farnum). The film was remade in 1952 with Michael Rennie as Jean Valjean and Robert Newton as Javert, the policeman, but this later version is a pale imitation of the 1935 classic. A number of other actors,
including Richard Jordan in a British remake of the film in 1979, portrayed Hugo's great fictional character. But no one has ever approached March's profound performance.
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