The 1935 version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton, is still considered the greatest screen version of the classic novel. My essay on the film and its production is now running at Turner Classic Movies online.
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo’s novel of crime and punishment and justice, has been filmed numerous times in and outside of Hollywood, but the most respected and revered screen adaptation remains the 1935 film produced by Darryl Zanuck for 20th Century Pictures (before it merged with Fox) and released by United Artists. The epic story of Jean Valjean, a man sentenced to hard labor for a minor crime and hounded for the rest of his life when he attempts to escape the brand of criminal in a rehabilitated life under a new name, is condensed into a three act film (separated by intertitles that serve the function of stage curtains bringing the act to a close) and designed as a dramatic duel for two Oscar®-winning actors.
Before he became a film director in Hollywood, Russian émigré Richard Boleslawski had been a director of the Moscow Art Theatre. He toured America with his company and remained in the United States to found the American Laboratory Theatre, introducing the Stanislavsky Method to the country years before drama coach Lee Strasberg and The Actor’s Studio made it famous. There’s little of that method in most of the performances, which play out in the familiar Hollywood style apart from Laughton’s performance, which is so repressed and tightly wound. The contrast between the emotional intensity of March’s performance and the suppressed and understated performance by Laughton (where the intensity is all internal) gives their duel its defining dynamic.
Les Miserables plays on Turner Classic Movies on August 24, and again in September and October. Read the entire feature on TCM here.