I wasn’t crazy about this truncated version of the oft-filmed Victor Hugo novel.
Jean Valjean (Michael Rennie) is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry family and is sentenced to ten years of hard labor in the galleys. The cruel operation is overseen by police official Etienne Javert (Robert Newton). Javert’s father is serving as a prisoner on the same ship. His shame at his birth causes Javert to be unbendable where the law in concerned, whatever hardship it may cause.
Valjean finally completes his sentence and is ordered to report to police headquarters in Orleans. At the same time he is issued documents labelling him as an ex-convict. These documents and the scars of the collar around his neck insure that common citizens will not associate with him or provide him with food, drink, or lodging. The increasingly embittered Valjean’s last stop is at the humble home of a cleric. He is welcomed with open arms. In response, Valjean disappears with the silverware. The police catch him but the cleric, who turns out to be a bishop, says he gave the silverware to Valjean and sends him off with it, wishing him a better life.
Valjean is so moved by this gesture that he reforms. The proceeds of the silver allow him to buy a pottery and, under an assumed name, he eventually becomes the beloved mayor of the small town he settles in. Since he never reported to Orleans, he has become a fugitive from justice and would receive a life sentence if caught.
As mayor, he befriends a consumptive streetwalker named Fantine (Sylvia Sidney). On her deathbed he vows to take care of her child Cosette (Deborah Paget) who is in school. At the same time, he learns of the trial of a simpleton for being “Jean Valjean” the fugitive. He goes to the trial to rescue him and is captured by Javert. Valjean escapes once more and becomes the gardener at the convent where Cosette goes to school.
Since Cosette is already a teenager when Fantine dies, we skip over many hundreds of pages of the novel and are soon in Paris. There Cosette falls in love with the revolutionary Marius and the fates of both Valjean and Javert are decided with the barricades as backdrop. With Edmund Gwenn as the bishop and Elsa Lanchester as one of his servants.
I really can’t imagine any version of Les Miserables that would surpass the 1934 two-part French version by Raymond Bernard and this one doesn’t come anywhere close. Rennie and Newton are OK but most of the acting is over-earnest. There is a Hollywood angle to the story that kind of cheapens it.