Review: Les Misérables Movie 1952
Film directed by Lewis Milestone, starring Michael Rennie and Robert Newton
The 1952 version of Les Misérables is an odd one. It’s a decent movie overall, though none of the cast really made an impression. Elsa Lanchester is the only name that I can remember without looking it up, and she’s in a tiny role.
The cinematography is good: Except for the opening scene at Valjean’s trial, everything has a strong sense of being part of an actual, lived-in place, with people going about their lives in the background. Fight choreography in the barricade scenes is markedly better than in the earlier film. Though I was amused that Valjean’s papers have the word “YELLOW” stamped across them to get around the fact that the film is black and white.
It’s clearly influenced by the 1935 version, or else both draw from some intermediate adaptation. They follow the same structure, from Valjean’s initial trial through Javert’s death, with a tightened timeline (only 10 years in prison). Both feature scenes, beats, and even dialogue in common that aren’t in the book: Javert as a warden, refusing to let the guards remove the collar from an injured man due to regulations. Title cards reading “Thus ends the first phase in the life of Jean Valjean.” Rescuing Cosette before Fantine dies, allowing them a reunion. Champmathieu could almost have been reused footage if he hadn’t been interacting with the other actors.
There’s also the travel itinerary for Valjean’s parole. I don’t recall it coming up in the book, but it’s brought up in the 1935, 1952 & 2012 films. I assume it’s something that one scriptwriter or another found in their research, but it makes me wonder where it first showed up.
But it diverges significantly from other versions and the book in several ways:
Altered for the Fifties
An entirely new character, Robert, befriends “M. Madeleine” when he arrives in town and becomes his confidante and second-in-command at the factory. It’s nice to see how “Madeleine” establishes himself, but Robert only really gives the actor someone to talk to before the action moves to Paris. (The Thénardiers and Éponine are missing entirely, though Gavroche at least gets his street lamp smashing moment.)
Marius becomes a rough-and-tumble revolutionary who manages to get his shirt off as soon as he meets Cosette. After fleeing from the police, jumping over the convent wall and meeting the gardener, he’s got a shoulder wound and Cosette’s got nursing skills. He spends his time making demands of people and acting tough, because that’s what 1950s audiences expect in a revolutionary, I suppose. Also, I think he’s in his mid-thirties.
Cosette’s portrayal, and the way Valjean and Marius treat her, makes for a disturbing comparison between 1935 and 1952 Hollywood. In 1935, it’s clear that she and Marius are pursuing one another, and while her agency is limited, it exists, and the two men in her life treat her as a person. Here, the last third of the film is dominated by Marius and Valjean being possessive, dismissing her wishes, being suspicious of each other’s motives, and arguing over who she should go with. Marius repeatedly insists that Valjean shouldn’t make her choices, saying, “She’s not a child, she’s a woman!” – but he doesn’t mean that Cosette should make her own choices. He means he should make them. As for Cosette herself, she’s mostly overwhelmed the whole time. It’s a sobering example of the post-World War II backlash against self-reliant women in movies.
Javert never doubts himself, never thinks he’s denounced the wrong man. It’s not clear whether he planted the idea that Champmathieu was Jean Valjean or took advantage of it, but he’s clearly trying to trap Madeleine into revealing himself, and the result is less “What a relief, I was right after all!” and more “Gotcha!” It’s funny that a scene that didn’t make it into the musical for 30 years has become so critical to my view of the character: It shows how Javert’s sense of law and punishment applies to himself, and sets up both a more fervent response when Valjean is unmasked and his ultimate undoing after the night of the barricades. Without that scene, and without some sort of view into his head (like the musical does with “Stars”), he loses depth.
Overall: not a bad film for its time, but I liked the 1935 version (which this was packaged with) better.