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Miceli, Sergio
(ed. and transl. by Marco Alunno)


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3.5. Les Misérables by Lewis Milestone and Alex North (USA, 1952)

First thing to do is to list what is missing in this film, not only with regard to the novel (that would take too long and, again, would not be very useful). To this purpose, I compared it with the previous versions of Les Misérables, irrespective of their durations.102 Both the Thénardier and Cosette are expunged from the story as well as Eponine, her torments and her heroic death. This is unacceptable in terms of the logic of the novel. It is not, instead, in terms of film narrative because, as I have already said, a film must work on its own. In this case, Richard Murphy, who adapted Hugo’s work alone, must have enjoyed an unusual freedom, as he was one of the few adapters who worked without undergoing the constructive criticism of a collaborator. However, considering that the film, after being edited, lasts 101 minutes, it is legitimate to sustain that Murphy opted for a story inspired by Hugo’s novel from the very beginning, rather than arguably telling so many facts at the same time, as the book does.

102 In my opinion, duration is certainly a very important aspect of a film, but it depends on the subjective choices made by the screenwriters. That a character and the events linked to it are eliminated is not less important than the duration of the film, because it depends in any case upon decisions taken by the producers and those who adapted the story for the screen.

Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 43th Street, dir. George Seaton, 1947) interpreting M. Myriel, bishop of Digne, does a quite good job, even though, as it has already been said, it would have been preferable to choose a younger actor for that role. Moreover, the name of the character is now Courbet which undoubtedly sounds French, but why to change it in the first place? There was no reason to go that far; it could have been bishop Bienvenu, bishop Myriel, bishop Digne, abbot Myriel, évêque103 Myriel, Monsieur Bienvenu or Monsieur Myriel. However, Courbet was chosen. Producers’ mysteries! Same thing happens with the bishop’s sister (Norma Varden, The Sound of Music, dir. Robert Wise, 1965), whereas her maid, Madame Magloire (Elsa Lanchester, Mary Poppins, Robert Stevenson, 1964), keeps the original name. (Hollywood producers’ mysteries get deeper.) Elsa Lanchester’s interpretation is too spirited, possibly because Madame Magloire was conceived as a comic character and producers knew that Lanchester was good at it. The episode with the bishop Myriel/Courbet lasts 7’13’’, which is not a lot, but certainly enough if compared with the film’s duration. Anyhow, the episode keeps its essence: a rude, clumsy, ill-clad, long-bearded Jean Valjean (a very good Michael Rennie, The Robe, dir. Henry Koster, 1953) who turns to be an elegant sir in M. Madeleine’s clothes.

103 Another word for bishop. In French in the original text. [EN]

As in the previous film produced in US in 1935, Cosette’s acting (Debra Paget, The Ten Commandements, dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1956) is nicely measured and she is much more submissive toward her tutor than every other interpreters examined so far. Right after M. Madeleine and Javert have a fight, Cosette (Paget) steps all of a sudden into the film as a fresh, young girl while walking to the hospital with her mother. Ben Nye (makeup) and Charles Le Maire (costumes) did an impressive job in gradually transforming an adolescent girl into an alluring, adult woman.

Inspector Javert (Robert Newton, Oliver Twist, dir. David Lean, 1948) is not exactly as one would think. Although Newton’s acting skills are unquestionable, Charles Laughton, Hans Hinrich, Anthony Perkins, Geoffrey Rush, John Malkovich or Russel Crowe would have be physically more appropriate. Newton’s interpretation is too apathetic but, again, perhaps imitating Boleslawski’s version seventeen years later, Fantine dies while hearing Javert’s threats. Consequently, Jean Valjean reacts by attacking him and, less ambiguously than before, Javert falls half-dead on the floor for a few seconds. I remind the reader that in the chapter on Orson Welles and radio drama I made a reference to Debra Paget and Robert Newton.

The consequence of eliminating the Thénardier from the story is that the main and recurring threat for Valjean comes now from Javert only. Maybe it was to offset the lack of adversities that the relationship between Jean Valjean and Mario [Marius] (Cameron Mitchel, who walks like a cow-boy as if that always works, no matter what film he is in) is worse than in other adaptations. In fact, their affective reconciliation is not openly shown but mostly implied. To this end, there is a conflictual dialog that seems to me particularly meaningful. During one of the first hard skirmishes between the two, it is precisely this Mario (the cow-boy version) who bluntly blames Valjean for feeling morbidly attached to Cosette. After all, Valjean’s bond to the girl makes one seriously think that he fell in love with her, but that love goes beyond what natural laws allow and manifests intolerable possessive implications. This demonstrates that in a film one can be dramatic without bloodsheds. Notice also that Milestone’s version of Les Misérables is the first to plainly allude to a semi-incestuous feeling from part of the protagonist, and this could confirm a conviction I have and I will make clear in the conclusions to this chapter.

Fantine (Sylvia Sidney) is barely shown. When we see her for the first time she is a prostitute harassed by a drunkard (and when she appears again she is already moribund). When Javert is about to arrest her and M. Madeleine comes to rescue her, the spectator is informed about some previous events that have not been shown. Here follows the first skirmish between M. Madeleine and the inspector Javert.

Gavroche (Robert Hyatt) is nothing more than a rascal who sympathizes with the revolutionaries – but he names them only once. However, he is also the go-between who helps Cosette and Marius to communicate.

The revolutionaries are less defined, that is, each of them is shown so briefly that the spectator easily forgets their faces. By carefully observing the film, one would notice Valjean’s sort of neutrality (or aversion) toward them. He does not pay much attention to them and in one of the first conflicts with Marius he expresses clearly conservative ideas. In any case, all the episodes involving the revolutionaries are summed up in one that sets the background to a rushed encounter between Valjean and Marius. In fact, being toward the end of the film, the screenwriter and the director decided to quickly reconcile the two characters. The barricades are also the initial backdrop of both Javert being captured by the revolutionaries and Valjean escaping in Paris’ sewers while dragging Marius’s wounded body.

There is a character, though, who, in my opinion, should not be there: Valjean’s friend Robert (James Robertson Justice, Moby Dick, dir. John Huston, 1956). He is a bearded and quite robust man who works in the flatware factory that Valjean eventually buys. After a skirmish to prove who is stronger (Valjean would win this) Robert turns into Valjean’s faithful friend.

Before concluding with the filmic and narrative aspects, I want to make some hypothesis about how the movie may have been realized. I would start by repeating that this is the first version of Les Misérables where the director has not participated in the adaptation, Richard Murphy being the only screenwriter here. If one thinks of the Hollywood movie-making style, as every cinema historian knows, two things might have caused that situation:

1) The director, whose career started in 1918, was hired with no knowledge at all of the script. After all, he was very experienced and made several films worth being remembered: All Quiet on the Western Front from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel adapted by seven skilled screenwriters but not by the director who won, anyway, an Academy Award as best director in 1930; Of Mice and Men from John Steinbeck’s novel adapted by Eugene Solow alone and nominated to four Academy Awards in 1939 (the score for this film is also one of the best of the academic composer Aaron Copland); and Munity on the Bounty (the version with Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard) from Charles Nordhoff’s tale adapted for the screen by Charles Lederer’s alone and nominated to seven Academy Awards. It does not seem to me fortuitous that: a) the director was never involved with the writing of the script; b) every film was based on a book; and c) only one screenwriter usually penned the script.

2) 20th Century Fox, as well as any other major, made films with any director who was available. This is also something that film historians know well, thus my hypothesis is based on facts. If an actor and an actress bound to a currently active contract were either having a moment of fame or the celebrity status of one of the two needed to be revamped, why then not use them again in a new production? Those were not the manners Fellini’s 8 ½ would have been released one year later. The director got even to the point of having a rift with his producer Angelo Rizzoli. One of the main reasons had to do with Rizzoli wanting to give Paul Newman the main role (due to the ‘international’ status of the actor, that is, due to commercial interests). Then we know what happened. Federico Fellini deservedly earned quite a lot bargaining power and influence on Italian producers. Had he been ingenuous like Sergio Leone in Once Upon a Time in America, 8 ½ would have been edited by the producer and all the flashbacks would have been lost in the attempt of making the film shorter. Not even Angelo Rizzoli would or could have wanted that.

This is the only way one could explain why in Milestone’s Les Misérables Javert seems to be a little bit wrong-footed and induced to unlikely grant his trust to a convict, Jean-Claude, so that the spectator can learn about his criminal records. In no other way one could explain why Mario’s actor is not tuned with his character: he is too vulgar, too impertinent, and too ‘modern’ for a young, noble, revolutionary Parisian student at the end of the XIX century. This is also the only explanation to why Robert, Valjean’s friend, is in the film although he does almost nothing except being nice to Valjean (one wonders who wanted him to be there and why). The end of the film is so hurried that after Javert commits suicide (the spectator is not spared any detail) Jean Valjean, who followed him, goes back home and the film is over.

What follows now is the list of the music cues contained in the CD of the film:

1. Main Title


2. Boiling sea


3. This is for Your Memory


4. Bishop Peruses Passport


5. Madame Courbet


6. Jean Turns Toward Door


7. The Potter Shop


8. Inspector Javert


9. Fantine Collapses


10. Order, Order


11. Magnificat


12. Cosette Kisses Jean


13. The Park / Cosette and Marius


14. Barricades


15. Take Care of Her (Finale)


Here is now the conviction I was talking about: due to missing characters, invented characters and events that were told by the protagonists and then summarily shown – in addition to some excessive dramas and some barely credible situations with no regard for psychology – of all adaptations of Les Misérables examined until now this is the farthest from the original novel. It must be clear now that between Boleslawski’s version and Milestone’s adaptation the former is the one I favor most; yet, in the latter, there is a component that can make the difference: Alex North who has been, with Bernard Herrmann, the most important and innovative voice in the whole history of Hollywood film music, from Max Steiner to John Williams.

North had already composed his masterpiece when he wrote the music for A Streetcar Named Desire (dir. Elia Kazan, 1951), but other important scores followed: Viva Zapata! (dir. Elia Kazan, 1952), The Rose Tattoo (dir. Daniel Mann, 1955), The Long, Hot Summer (dir. Martin Ritt, 1958), Spartacus (dir. Stanley Kubrik, 1960), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (dir. Mike Nichols, 1966) and many others.

Les Misérables (1952).

Although Edward Powell was not one of North’s usual collaborators (like Maurice de Packh was), he managed to instill in the score for Les Misérables North’s typical sound. In the Main Title the brass section is very tight and the strings enter at the repetition of the first semi-phrase. They play short, dramatic two-note cells with the typical dry sound of the ponticello position. Then the thundering timpani join them. The music does not negatively interfere with the overlays that are marked by unsteady, internal-level, hammer sounds. When the sequence changes (it shows a ship fighting against the waves – actually a scale model of it, a typical technique used before the computer-graphic era), the sudden return of the orchestra does not entail a change in mood (Boiling Sea track in the CD). The music that accompanies this sequence might sound like the opposite of the Main Titles since the ship’s troubled journey somehow reflects the condition of the convicts.

Observe also that North uses themes with low-melodic profiles, just as Herrmann often does (in fact, between the two there are several similarities, besides being both of Russian origin). This means that those themes are neither cantabili,104 nor singable and, in fact, they cannot be easily memorized. Preventing the spectator from ‘appropriating’ them, makes those themes ‘uncatchable’ and, therefore, very fascinating.

104 ‘Clearly melodic,’ in Italian in the original text. [EN]

One of the most interesting compositional processes applied by North appears in the CD track titled This is for Your Memory. This is an uncommonly long piece in a film (6’30") since musical cues in cinema range between 5" and 2’ (3’ in exceptional cases). The piece, though, is organized in eight fragments whose average duration is 45", most of them ending with a chord with a clear fundamental coming out of the texture and a fermata that extends it ad libitum. Each fragment seems to continue a phrase that was left dangling. See, for example, what happens between the first and the second. At the end of the first fragment the note that stands out and is left unresolved is A6 that connects with the next fragment through a whole-step motion (B6). The transition is very natural since the second fragment is simply a variation of the first. The same applies to the next fragments, so much so that the music may seamlessly chain an undefined number of fragments depending on the duration of the scene. Then, the last 35-second fragment repeats the tune from the Main Title. In short, the whole progression gradually moves from the melodicism and rhythmic regularity of the first fragment to the athematic frantic pace of the following fragments. Such a variability in expression can be explained by considering that the psychological introspection of the characters had always been of paramount importance to North.

Les Misérables (1952).

Lastly, there would be still something to say about the tracks Inspector Javert and Barricades, but there is no space for that here. I will just conclude, then, by stating that this and Honegger’s musical interpretation of Les Misérables are simply the best. They cannot save the films from their many deficiencies, but they represent anyway two of the greatest film scores composed between 1927 and the television era.

DVD – Dal romanzo di Victor Hugo I Miserabili.
Edizione due dischi [it contains two different films, one for each DVD].
i Miserabili (1952).
Lingue: Italiano 1.0 Mono. Inglese 2.0 Stereo.
Sottotitoli: Italiano, Inglese, Francese, Olandese.
Menu: Italiano, Inglese, Francese, Olandese.
Durata: 101 minuti circa – B/N.
Presentato in 1.33:1.
Zona: 2 PAL – © 1952, Revised 1980.
Frame: Full Frame 4.3.
DVD9 – singola faccia – doppio strato.
Dolby Digital.
20th Century Fox, F1 SITS 56087DE (2013).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

DVD – D’après le Roman de Victor Hugo Les Miserables.
Version de 1952.
Version Originale Sous-titrée.
DVD9 – Format 1.78 Écran 16/9ème Compatible 4/3 – Noir et Blanc , Durée du film: 1H 40 Env.
Son Anglais 2,0 stereo; Sous-Titres Anglais, Français.
Zone PAL 2.
Dolby Digital.
Twenty Centuty Fox, F1 SFRS 126945. From (France).
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

CD Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.
Limited Collection Edition of 1000 copies.
Music Composed by Alex North.
Conducted by Afred Newman.
Album Producer Nick Redman.
Score Remix and Restoration by Michael Matessino.
Booklet pp. 12 – notes by Robert Townson.
Varèse Sarabande VLC 0707 1065.
Source: Archive S. M., Florence.

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