LES MISÉRABLES. 1ère epoque: Jean Valjean
Sog.: from the novel of the same name (1862) by Victor Hugo. Scen.: Paul Capellani. F.: Karémine Mérobian, Louis Forestier. Scgf.: Henri Ménessier, Pierre Trimbach. Int.: Henry Krauss (Jean Valjean), Henri Étiévant (l’ispettore Javert), Gabriel de Gravonne (Marius Pontmercy), Marie Ventura (Fantine), Auguste Mévisto (Thénardier), Léon Bernard (monsignor Myriel), Mistinguett (Éponine). Prod.: Société cinématographique des Auteurs et Gens de Lettres. DCP. D.: 39’. Tinted and toned
Albert Capellani’s four-part adaptation of Victor Hugo’s most famous novel, Les Misérables, is an exceptional work. Published in 1862, then serialised in the press, the novel – which was also a polemical social critique – enjoyed unprecedented popular success and was warmly received among working class. This immense social and historical fresco paints a very precise picture of life in France at the start of the 19th century. Through the prism of convict Jean Valjean, Hugo analyses human nature and denounces the conditions of the poorest people. The political and popular interest around this text gave rise to many adaptations. In 1905, Capellani focused on a single episode when he made Le Chemineau. That same year, Alice Guy directed On the Barricade in the US. The 1912 version of Les Misérables is the first long-format adaptation (3,445 metres, which is 2 hours and 40 minutes of film), opening the way for future adaptations (Henri Fescourt, 1925; Raymond Bernard 1934; Jean-Paul Le Chanois, 1958, etc). Giving a naturalistic effect to the productions of Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres (SCAGL), which he led as artistic director since its inception, Capellani uses mostly natural décor, employing the Vincennes studio for major reconstructions only. The cobblestone streets of Paris and the rural surroundings of the city suburbs give the film an intensely authentic feel. The construction of the studio sets by Henri Ménessier was based on documentary research by Pierre Trimbach, then an assistant camera operator at Pathé, in order to achieve the most realistic effect. The costumes and makeup also show the care that was taken in the reconstruction. This major SCAGL production brought together the big stars of the theatrical scene, notably Henry Krauss in the role of Jean Valjean, together with Mistinguett (Éponine) in a departure from her usual roles. The naturalness of their modern acting was enhanced by the presence of extras and non-professional actors assembled for the crowd scenes. The scene of the barricades with over 90 extras cast as soldiers was a striking case in point. The film was released in four parts in November 1912, at a rate of one episode per week, each devoted to one character (Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and finally, Cosette et Marius). Several front pages in the specialist press heaped high praise on the actors or on Victor Hugo himself, whose face appeared on many of the film posters. At that time, the author and Louis Pasteur were the most popular men in France. Pathé rolled out a major publicity campaign, publishing a lavishly illustrated promotional booklet along with the full cast list. Moreover, the first ever edition of “Pathé-Journal” was devoted entirely to the film. In the US, where the film was distributed by Eclectic (an American Pathé brand), the critical acclaim was also rapturous. It was thanks to the success of this film that Capellani would carve out a role for himself in the American film industry a year later, when he left war-torn France to pursue his career on the other side of the Atlantic.