With the stage musical Les Misérables coming to the big screen in one of Hollywood’s most anticipated releases of the holiday season, it seemed a good time to remind you about Raymond Bernard’s extraordinary 1934 cinematic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel of the same name. This Les misérables is widely considered the best of the many screen versions of the beloved book. A masterpiece of the early sound era of French filmmaking, it is at once majestic and intimate, featuring cinematography by Jules Kruger (who also served behind the camera on Abel Gance’s legendary Napoleon) and art direction by Jean Perrier, who dazzlingly recreated nineteenth-century Paris. And in its nearly five-hour running time, the film is able to fully immerse the viewer in Hugo’s breathtakingly expansive story.
Of course, no Les misérables would function at all without a forceful Jean Valjean. Here, in perhaps the definitive characterization, the iconic role is inhabited by the mountainous Harry Baur (a frequent star of Julien Duvivier films), who gracefully embodies Valjean’s physical strength and innate goodness. Watch Baur in this classic scene early in the film, in which Valjean, a recently escaped convict, is taught a lesson in kindness by a good-hearted bishop.