Other Noteworthy Performances: John Barrymore (Twentieth Century), Boris Babochkin (Chapaev), Takeshi Sakamoto (A Story of Floating Weeds), Claude Rains (Crime without Passion), W.C. Fields (It’s a Gift), George Arliss (The House of Rothschild), William Powell (The Thin Man), Clarke Gable (It Happened One Night), Wallace Beery (Viva Villa!), Wallace Beery (Treasure Island)
It’s easy to imagine that when Victor Hugo pictured Jean Valjean he envisioned something close to Harry Baur. Physically, Baur is perfect as the ex-convict remade into a respectable member of French society. He has lived a hard life; it’s written on every line of his face. What is remarkable is Baur shows us, in explicit detail and inscrutable believability, Valjean’s evolution from the poor, but good natured man sentenced to an unusually harsh sentence for stealing a loaf of bread, to a bitter desperate ex-convict, to the almost saintly benefactor of society hungry for redemption. Baur pulls off these moral and personal (not to mention remarkable physical) transformations aided by a great script and director, both of which commit to taking the time to tell Valjean’s complete story.
Baur also succeeds because he enters the frame as a whole person, never completely one thing or another, refusing to reduce the character to simple parts. When he stomps his foot on the chimneysweep’s coin and growls at him to beat it, we instinctively know that this isn’t a bad man, but like anyone as desperate as him, he is capable of great evil. At that moment he is a complex person making a rash but bad decision, one any of us, no matter how moral we like to think we are, are capable of making. When he realizes what he has done and futilely calls the boy back to return his coin we are acutely aware of how society has, through its inability to trust an ex-convict, ground down his moral sense and turned him into something worse than before. Luckily for him (and society), Valjean is also aware of this dichotomy and overcomes the ex-convict stigma by taking a new name and building a new life on foundations of generosity, service, and doing no harm.
Baur embodies Valjean definitively, putting most others who have tackled the part to shame, especially Fredric March who almost laughably tackled it a year later in an inferior MGM adaptation. (Did anyone believe March could lift a cart with his back?) In one of Baur’s best scenes he has just learned that another man, Champmatieu (also played to great comic effect by Baur), has been arrested and is standing trial for the crimes of Jean Valjean. What does he do? Valjean, now known as M. Madeline, has vowed to do no more harm, but no matter what he does here, harm will be done to someone. If he stays put, saying nothing, an innocent man will be sent to prison. But, if he turns himself in all the good work he has done in the village and all the people who depend on his charity will suffer. When Fredric March played the scene we saw ACTING! in the worst way. With Baur we watch a man struggling with a dilemma (we would now call it a catch-22), not by expressing and emoting, but through introspective, internal debate. It is a poignant scene that, like the rest of the picture, faithfully explores Hugo’s themes and social criticisms. How can society truly embrace the ideals of liberty, equality and humanity if a man’s past rather than his current actions determines how we perceive and behave toward him? Baur plays Valjean as a man to be both admired and feared and this ambiguity would have made Victor Hugo proud.