Top 10 Les Mizzes Better Than the New Les Miz

The movie musical is already a worldwide hit, but lovers of the Victor Hugo novel can find many more satisfying versions: on film, TV, the radio and YouTube

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2. Les Misérables, 1937 U.S. radio series

Orson Welles was a busy boy in 1937. The previous season his Mercury Theatre had enthralled Broadway with a quartet of plays, including Dr. Faustus (Welles as Faust) and the all-black “voodoo” Macbeth; the young impresario had directed and coproduced all four. In the 1937-38 season, while wowing radio fans as Lamont Cranston on The Shadow (with Agnes Moorehead as Margo Lane), he would stage four more Broadway triumphs: Julius Caesar (Welles as Brutus), Shaw’s Heartbreak House (Welles as the octogenerarian Captain Shotover), the pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock and a lightning-farce update of the Elizabethan play The Shoemaker’s Holiday. Those exploits would make Welles a TIME cover boy on May 9, 1938. Later that year, he’d stoke a national panic with the Mercury Theatre’s radiocast of The War of the Worlds. By then he was all of 23.

(READ: the 1938 Orson Welles cover story)

But in the summer of ’37, the young man already known as Awesome Welles needed a warm-weather outlet for his tireless talents. That came when the Mutual Broadcasting System commissioned him to stage a radio version of Les Misérables: seven Sunday-evening half-hours, broadcast live, from July 23rd to Sept. 3rd. He cast the piece with familiars from his stock company — Martin Gabel as Javert, Ray Collins as Thénardier, Moorehead as Mme. Thénardier, Alice Frost as Fantine, Virginia Nicholson (Welles’s first wife) as the older Cosette — and with colleagues from radio, notably Frank Readick as the Bishop of Digne. Welles, of course, played Jean Valjean and read the narration; he also wrote the radio adaptation and directed it.

(READ: Corliss on Orson Welles’ radio work)

The series, which runs 3hrs., 10min., is radio soap opera at its most elevated and thrilling. Welles split the story into seven chapters: 1. The Bishop, 2. Javert, 3. The Trial, 4. Cosette, 5. The Grave, 6. The Barricade and 7. The Final Episode. Except for the disposable fifth episode, which affords Collins too much leeway for broad comedy as a gardener and gravedigger, each chapter boasts its own dramatic arc; the seventh recaps the narrative up to Javert’s death, for latecomers, as a prelude to Valjean’s reconciliation with Cosette and God. Creating Les Miz without pictures, Welles exploits the medium to its full dramatic, oral and aural effect. He applies to radio the bold use of sound effects, crowd scenes and background music that he had experimented with in the theater, even as he would import many of his radio techniques when making his first Hollywood film, Citizen Kane.

(READ: Corliss on Orson Welles and Citizen Kane)

Beginning each broadcast with Hugo’s introduction — “So long as ignorance and poverty remain on earth, these words cannot be useless” — Welles underlines the novel’s social outrage, no less pertinent to 1937 America, when unemployment rose again at the beginning of President Roosevelt’s second term. Welles as Javert and the rest of the cast wrench full force from the personal injustices in the story. Welles as narrator uses his sonorous bass voice to paint a world of bitterness. Of the abashed and abused Fantine, he wonders, “How could she pay? She couldn’t. How could she live? She learned.” He describes the Thénardiers as “cunning and rage-married [great phrase], a hideous and terrible pair… a ferocious mistress, a malignant master.” And he indicts whole cultures — perhaps ours as well as Hugo’s — when he asks, “What is the history of France? It is society buying a slave. From whom? From misery. A soul for a bit of bread.” Seventy-five years later, we hear an eloquently morose God speaking through Valjean’s capacious heart and in Javert’s vengeful voice.

(LISTEN TO: the full 1937 Les Misérables radio series

Bonus Entry: On a Sunday evening in Oct. 1942, Welles guested on Fred Allen’s comedy half-hour, Texaco Star Theater. After suffering some raillery on his “superman myth” (“You said when a person rang my doorbell, 16 peacocks flew out of the transom, 21 guns went off in a salute and I came out of four doors simultaneously”), Welles says he wants to produce a new version of Les Misérables: himself as Jean Valjean, Fred as as Javert and everything shared 50-50. In the first scene, Valjean soliloquizes in a garret and flees when Javert raps on the door; in the second, Valjean delivers a logorrheic farewell to freedom as Javert blows his police whistle. Fred is furious — “But you took both 50s” — until Orson assures him that the final scene “is all yours, Fred. Your speech is the climax of the entire play.” In the sewers, Javert has finally trapped Valjean, who still won’t shut up. “The water in this sewer is rising,” Welles intones. “I am six-feet-nine. You, Javert, are five-feet-two…. Now, Javert… pronounce my doom! Speak, Javert. Speak.” The script reads: “Allen: (gargles water and tries to talk).”

(LISTEN TO: the 1942 Fred Allen Show with Orson Welles)

1. Les Misérables, 1933-34 French film

Cramming 1,400 pages of Hugo into a couple of hours, most movie versions of the novel play like illustrated Cliff Notes. Moviegoers, like high school students, could condense the story into 20 words: Jean Valjean, bread, jail, escape, priest, silver candlesticks, regeneration, hiding, Mayor, Javert, Fantine, Cosette, Marius, revolution, sewer, Seine, reconciliation, death. For the majority of the movie versions, the trick was to slightly expand this check list, find similarities between Hugo’s Paris and Charles Dickens’ tragicomic London, hit the major marks and skedaddle on out. French director Raymond Bernard took a different tack: assembling a cast headed by Harry Baur as Valjean and Charles Vanel as Javert, Bernard turned the novel into a three-part saga of nearly five hours and made it a vivid, independent cinematic experience.

(READ: Jesse Dorris’s Q&A with Hugh Jackman, the singing Valjean)

Available in an Eclipse/Criterion package that includes the director’s equally impressive 1932 war film Wooden Crosses, this Les Miz was released as three separate films: Tempest in a Skull, The Thénardiers and Liberty, Sweet Liberty. In 1936 it played in U.S. theaters in a 2hr., 45min.-cut; then the film disappeared until Bernard restored it in the 1950s to a nearly complete version that runs 4hrs., 42 min. While creating the fullest, most faithful movie version, Bernard also deftly compressed whole sections of the novel into the briefest, most telling vignettes — as when Valjean’s second imprisonment is encapsulated by an outside view of his cell’s iron bars, which dissolves to the same shot with the bars bent apart; the convict has again escaped.

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