Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Les Misérables, Anna Karenina and Welles: A Dissent

The Siren registers polite disagreement with Dave Kehr of the New York Times, and his review yesterday of new DVDs. I hope he didn't mean it when he said that the 1948 Anna Karenina and the double DVD set of the 1935 and 1952 Les Misérables were destined to sit "somewhere on a back shelf in high school libraries, to be shown whenever an English teacher feels like taking an afternoon off." Both releases have a great deal to offer film lovers.

The Siren saw that version of Tolstoy quite some time ago, and while Vivien Leigh could not compete with memories of Garbo in the same role thirteen years earlier, Ralph Richardson was a superb Karenin. It was also directed by Julien Duvivier, a fine talent who achieved greatness more than once with films such as Un Carnet de Bal and Pepe le Moko. As for Les Misérables, the Siren hasn't seen the 1952 version, though Robert Newton supposedly does a good job as Javert, and Lewis Milestone was no slouch. But releasing the 1935 version is a genuine event, for it contains Charles Laughton as Javert, a role recorded at the pinnacle of his artistry. It's been darned hard to find for lo these many years, despite virtues such as cinematography by the great Gregg Toland. The director was Richard Boleslawski, a veteran of the Moscow Art Theatre whose role in bringing the Method to America led Simon Callow to call him "Moses, or perhaps John the Baptist." Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester (Madame Magloire in the 1952 version), thought it Laughton's finest performance. And Gloria, if you are reading this and you have a multi-region DVD player, Amazon has it for $13.99, and they ship to Spain. The Siren's copy is on its way.

Finally, a word about Orson Welles as Rochester in Jane Eyre (1944), also released this week. The Siren cheerfully acknowledges her own Welles worship, but she still thinks his performance has been short-changed. Rochester in the novel is a frequently menacing figure, who at first frightens Jane as much as he fascinates her. The Siren sees little similarity between Welles's Rochester, with his air of privilege and his acid sarcasm at Jane's expense, and Heathcliff, the half-wild, uncouth orphan, desperately in love with a woman he cannot have. (Perhaps the association comes from Laurence Olivier. He was mesmerizing, but he played Heathcliff throughout with an accent more redolent of the Old Vic than the stable.)

Joan Fontaine did indeed play the spirited Jane a mite too close to Mrs. de Winter territory. But I would not call the novel's Rochester downtrodden, as Mr. Kehr does, not even at the end when, as Joyce Carol Oates wrote, "the blind and crippled Rochester is no less masculine than before." Rather than playing it safe, as a straight figure of romance, Welles brought out the neurosis in Rochester to a marked degree while retaining the arrogance of the aristocrat. That was a definite risk. As David Shipman put it, Welles "moved and looked the part, darkly romantic, but it was hard to believe that he wasn't as insane as his wife."

15 comments:

Rich said...

Well said. The 1935 Les Miserables is right up there with the Ronald Colman "Tale of Two Cities" and the George Cukor "David Copperfield" as rousing classics rendered as great yarns. These folks BELIEVED in these stories. Laughton is scary good.

The Siren rocks.

Campaspe said...

I haven't seen the 1935 version either, but I was so excited to see it finally on DVD that I have had it advance-ordered for a month, along with the Renoir set (and Renoir's autobiography). I was a bit crushed to see it get such short shrift from the paper of record.

Mike said...

I have to agree with Rich: Laughton's Javert is one of my favorite movie villains. And the film is great, too, my pick for the second-best film of 1935 (after Bride of Frankenstein).

Campaspe said...

I love Charles Laughton, and would go so far as to say any connoisseur of movie acting must have some regard for him. When I started my blog I did a series of Laughton posts, and several of the movies themselves were mediocre or worse--but Laughton always pulled me in. When you have a legendary performance by a great actor finally becoming available on DVD, it distresses me to see it get dissed so badly, and in a forum that has a lot of influence too. And Gregg Toland, too! High school English class, my eye.

Gloria said...

Campaspe, I wasn't able to see "Les Miserables" until mafter 25 years of being a Laughton fan (when I got an VHS copy")... I can only say that the wait was worth it: it's one of his most intense performances... and oh, his final scenes in the film! (also the one in which he questions his men about the origins of the mayor -Valjean-) I believe that his Javert is somewhat the quintaessence of what he could do at the top of his glory, there is something there that you don't get anywhere else... Oh, well I admit I am an apologist, but I really like him in this role.

I'm with you against the review discarding the film do frivolously... Over the years, I've been crossed about some critics dissing CL's grand performances, just because they were in Black and White (therefore "ancient") and someone else had done a role of his more recently. Honest, of course Charles did some bad films, but I believe that his best work is beyond question, and I could think that many a present actor would cut his hand just to make history in just one role in one film as CL did in diverse roles of him: I could list two dozen performances of him, which put his work high above the work of many (including some who patronised him for "selling himself to Hollywood" but ultimately had careers musch less brilliant)

So I definitely look forward to get the DVD, which I have been told, is restored.

Campaspe said...

Gloria, I think Simon Callow makes a splendid case for Laughton's acting in his book. That was what I liked about the book, his focus on the acting as opposed to the gossip. Laughton is so great to watch even in a relatively minor film, like Jamaica Inn. He makes exciting choices.

Gloria said...

Campaspe, Callow's biography is usually my first recommendation as a Laughton read: he really goes into the heart of the matter, and tries to make us see what made him tick as an actor... compared to his book, Lanchester and Higham's look like the usual lame tit and tat celebrity volume, with little beyond the exposé value (if that's a value...). Gossipy biographies make me often wonder what's the private life of the writers, who judge so harshly their biographées.

You're right about his making the unusual choices, he was once accurately described as the "most unpredictable of our actors" by a British critic... And indeed, when I see a lot of overweight thespians (and particularly, the English-speaking ones- conform to play the same "fat man role" over and over, Laughton's approach is refreshing

Lance Mannion said...

Ok, Laughton as Javert is something I've got to see.

Robert Newton as Javert is something I should see because I can't see it.

I can't see Michael Rennie or Frederic March as Jean Valjean either.

Campaspe said...

Lance, I think March is supposed to be pretty good. He was a fine actor on occasion.

Mike said...

I was all ready to take exception to your "He was a fine actor on occasion" comment about March, until I thought more about the films I've seen him in. I realized that for every film I love him in (Les Mis, Best Years of Our Lives, Nothing Sacred, The Eagle and the Hawk), there's a film where I think he was either lazy or horribly miscast (Smilin' Through, Barretts of Wimpole Street, Anthony Adverse). Just curious: What's your favorite March performance?

Gloria said...

My choices: Dearth Takes a Holiday, Nothing Sacred, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hide, I agree he could be very good and is somewhat unfairly forgotten, though, yes, he was sort of miscasted in "Barretts of Wimpole Street" (but he was sort of fun to watch, precisely for that)

Campaspe said...

I actually adore March. He was so handsome, and amazingly versatile. I admire the way he moved between film and theater, lingering in theater when the movie roles became boring to him. But he was like Kirk Douglas (my newcritics colleague Tom Watson has a great post on Douglas, btw) in that his intensity could turn into scenery-chewing if he didn't watch it. I even rather like Anthony Adverse, but I am a sucker for sweeping historical romances. Some faves: The Best Years of Our Lives (his best), Design for Living, I Married a Witch, the original Star is Born, Nothing Sacred. In that last, I always forget to watch for a Hollywood-legend moment. Allegedly March was a philanderer of the very first order, despite his long marriage. So the story goes that, when his hands & her backside were out of camera range, he grabbed Carole Lombard's posterior during an embrace, and that if you watch closely you can see her give a little start. I have seen the movie several times, but it's so good I always get caught up and forget to check.

Some ones I want to see: Death Takes a Holiday (apparently I have to rent the remake if I want to see that one) and The Affairs of Cellini, which is another well-regarded 1930s movie with a famous director (Gregory La Cava) that the razzafrazzin' suits haven't chosen to release on DVD or anything else. One of the problems with March is that his earlier (and possibly best) work has been harder to find. I can't get hold of The Royal Family of Broadway either; his John Barrymore impersonation is supposedly dead accurate.

Dan Leo said...

Dear Siren,
(Hope you're checking comments on this old post...)
I finally watched the '35 Les Miz last night, and you're so right, Laughton was brilliant. Watching him with March it seemed to me that Laughton just caught on better than some stage-trained actors of his day the difference between stage and screen acting. He's on screen not all that much but somehow he's so very moving.

By the way, I found this interesting quote from Laughton, about Mitchum: "All the tough talk is blind. He's a literate, gracious, kind man and he speaks beautifully - when he wants to. Bob would make the best Macbeth of any actor living."

Ah, but Bob liked his booze, and his pot...

Noel Vera said...

Belated comment on an old post, but you make a spirited defense, ma'am. I'd love to see that Laughton.

Of what little I've seen, my favorite Laughton was his performance in Advice and Consent. All I can say is, he must be damned good in Miserable if he prefers that over the one I have in mind...

Campaspe said...

Dan, Laughton got on wonderfully with Mitchum, by all accounts. Many directors like Minnelli thought he was one of the best they ever worked with. If I recall right, Huston said he thought Mitchum could easily have done Shakespeare.

Noel, Laughton is probably the best thing about Advise and Consent, which is a darned good movie overall. I am looking forward to seeing his Javert but time has not permitted yet!