Any ordinary film, when loaded with the handicaps piled on Les Miserables, would stagger and drop with a resounding flop. Holding it all together is the thespic strength of the great Harry Baur, who supports this epic with a power strangely comparable to that of the Jean Valjean he plays. Baer is powerful, disciplined and moving in the lead role, while other lead and supporting players, Charles Dullin and Charles Vanel in particular, are far better than average. Raymond Bernard’s sharp direction is constantly in evidence.
Story is still essentially a moral essay, with Valjean the reformed criminal who becomes the embodiment of good under the constant flagellation of a scrupulous conscience. Film opens with his release from prison and metamorphosis through the kindness of a Bishop. He rises to mayoralty of a town and subsequent wealth, only to be forced by his conscience to declare his criminal identity, thereby saving another from prison. He escapes the police to carry out a mission to care for a dying woman’s daughter, Cosette (Josselyne Gael).
There is a gap of eight years, where the second portion of the film takes up in 1832, following the Bourbon reaccession of the French throne. Cosette falls in love with a young revolutionary who mans the barricades against royalist troops. Although he disapproves, Valjean finally effects their rescue and marriage, then dies.
Vanel, as Javert, the police inspector who constantly haunts Valjean, is excellent; Dullin plays a scurrilous innkeeper. Scenes of the abortive revolutionary attempts are outstanding, while camera work throughout is on a high plane. [Original version was in three parts – Une tempete sous un crane (101 mins.), Les Thenardiers (81 mins.) and Liberte, liberte cherie (83 mins.) – released a week apart in Paris in February 1934. In a brief notice, Variety’s reviewer described it as ‘heavy and slow, following book closely. Relatively little dialogue and lots of ponderous gesture, in best French manner. Remarkably good technically, and acting marvelous.’ Kept out of the American market because of 20th Century’s version then in production, the film was first shown in the US in October 1936 in a subtitled 162-min. version (with an intermission after Valjean’s second toppling by Javert) – ‘an A-1 example of intelligent shearing’ noted Variety’s reviewer. Above review is of a (poorly) subtitled 209-min. version released in the US in December 1946, divided into two parts (Jean Valjean and Cosette) with an intermision.]