20th Century's 1935 (Fredric March) version of this story was so successful that the studio (by then 20th Century Fox), as early as 1941, intended to produce a sequel. But initial plans for this new version fell through. Filming of this version finally began in 1951. Richard Murphy's script was to some extent derived (in some scenes it seems almost plagiarized) from the 1935 movie. But the 1952 film focuses on Valjean and Javert, and differs in major ways from its predecessor. And while it leaves out a great deal of Hugo's story, it inserts some characters and events that are absent from the novel.
Like the earlier version, the 1952 film begins with Valjean's trial and hard time on a galley. After facing discrimination as an ex-convict, Valjean finds food and shelter with a Bishop. He steals the Bishop's silverware, but the Bishop excuses this act and even gives Valjean two silver candlesticks, telling him, "It is the giver who receives the gift, . . . he feels he has done something generous and noble that sets him above other men." Valjean sells some of the silverware, but not the candlesticks. In a small town, he stops a runaway carriage, saving the life of the owner's grandson, who was riding in it (an event not in the novel). Valjean chooses to disregard his parole's reporting requirements, remain in town, assume the name "Madeleine," and purchase the local pottery factory. In the factory, he encounters its foreman, "Robert" (a character not found in Hugo's novel), who becomes Valjean's alter ego.
As a reward for his successful management of the factory, the town selects Madeleine as its mayor; and in this role he encounters Police Inspector Javert, whom he met while a prisoner. In this film, Javert (in a manner reminiscent of TV's Columbo) seems suspicious of Valjean from their first meeting. While on the galley, Valjean demonstrates his great strength by lifting a large beam. In many screen versions of the story, Javert remembers this exploit, and becomes suspicious when Madeleine/Valjean lifts a heavy cart to save a man trapped under it. But, curiously, the 1952 movie does not include the cart-lifting scene. In this film, we do not meet Fantine until, fired from her job at Valjean's factory, she is desperately worried about her daughter Cosette, whom she has left with an unnamed innkeeper and his wife. This movie omits the sacrifices--selling her hair, her teeth, and her body--that Hugo ascribes to her in the novel. Instead, we watch her walking along the street, and see her as she fights with a drunk who accosts her. For this, she is apprehended by Javert, who intends to imprison her, but Valjean insists that she be released. In a significant exchange, Javert says, "This is a matter of law." Valjean responds, "This is a matter of justice." After learning about Cosette, Valjean brings her to Fantine, with no mention of the Thenardiers or Cosette's life with them.
Javert, still suspicious and watching Valjean carefully, informs the mayor that he will be going to Arras in connection with the case of Champmathieu, who has wrongly been identified as Valjean, and is about to be sent to the galleys. Valjean's conscience compels him to attend the trial to prove Champmathieu innocent (Rennie plays the part of Champmathieu). Prior to his confession, Javert continues to eye Valjean. As Valjean tells Fantine that he will be going away, and assures her that Robert will care for Cosette, Javert arrives to arrest Valjean. The trauma of this encounter leads to Fantine's death. Valjean chokes Javert and escapes.
The film jumps ahead to the time of Cosette's last year at the convent, where she is a student and Valjean is a gardener. Following a disturbance outside the convent, Marius appears, jumping over the convent wall to avoid the police, and nursing a minor wound from a saber. Valjean conceals Marius in his cottage, where Cosette discovers Marius and attends to his wound. Somehow, Cosette knows Gavroche (perhaps from her time with the Thenardiers, although this is not explained) and sends him to the university to arrange a meeting between herself and Marius. Thereafter, they meet a number of times. The police are watching Marius as a possible revolutionary. And Javert is assigned to investigate Cosette, who may be implicated in his activities.
Valjean fears that, if Marius visits his house, the police may follow him and discover Valjean's presence. When Marius comes to the house, and announces his plan to marry Cosette, Valjean objects strongly, "She's a child." Marius responds, "Whether you know it or not, you're in love with her and you want her for yourself." But Cosette feels an obligation to Valjean and plans to accompany him to England. Later, Marius sends a note to Cosette, begging her not to sacrifice herself to Valjean's selfishness. He promises to follow her wherever she goes. But Gavroche delivers this note to Valjean, who reads it, and is forced to reconsider his attitude toward Cosette. Consequently, he goes to the barricade to see Marius, followed by Javert. He tells Marius that he loves Cosette, but not in the way Marius thinks. In fact, Valjean loves her too much to stand in the way of her happiness, so he says Marius is free to go to her. But Marius now feels obligated to remain at the barricade. "What Paris does tonight, France does tomorrow."
Then, finding that Javert has been seized by the rebels, Valjean seeks permission to deal with him. He levels a pistol at Javert, apparently intending to shoot him, but then releases him instead. Marius is wounded in the melee, and Valjean, pursued by Javert, carries Marius through the sewers and all the way to his house. Here, Javert confronts him. As in the 1935 film, Javert attempts to absolve himself of personal responsibility: "I am an officer of the law doing my duty. It makes no difference what I think or feel or want. It has nothing to do with me. Nothing. Can't you see that?" But, when Valjean, exhausted from his efforts, can't move Marius by himself, Javert assists him, and then waits while Valjean says goodbye to Cosette. While Javert is waiting to take Valjean into custody, Robert remarks that Valjean will be sent back to the galleys for life, and asks Javert bitterly, "How does success taste after all these years, Inspector?" Ready to surrender himself to Javert, Valjean discovers that the inspector has disappeared. He looks down the street just in time to see Javert jump into the river, then he returns to his house and embraces Cosette.
Many of the novel's characters and events are absent from this film: Gillenormand, George Pontmercy, Eponine and the Thenardiers (except for Gavroche, whose role is minimized), Fantine's relationship with Tholomyes, Eponine's relationship with Marius, the Gorbeau House ambush, Eponine's thwarting of Thenardier's attack on Valjean and Cosette, Gavroche's death, Marius' discovery that it was Valjean who carried him through the sewers, Javert's suicide, and Valjean's death.
There are some issues with the casting and the script. Because of the film's focus on Valjean and Javert, most cast members are not given sufficient screen time in which to portray their characters. Michael Rennie was 42 when Les Miserables was filmed. With appropriate make-up, his appearance as a convict is credible; but he is not convincing as Valjean in later years, when Vajean would have been in his early 60s. As Javert, Robert Newton is extremely focused and unemotional. (He has a similar role as Inspector Fix, who pursues Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days.) Sylvia Sidney was 41 when this movie was produced, perhaps a little old for Fantine; but she puts a lot of emotion into her performance. Marius and Cosette come across as rather superficial. Debra Paget, at 18, was about the right age for grown-up Cosette; but this makes her a bit old to be the little girl rescued by Valjean (in the novel, Cosette was then 8 years old). At 33, Cameron Mitchell was too old to be Marius--in some scenes, he looks older than Valjean. More importantly, the script has this character completely wrong. In the movie, Marius is a well-dressed, dogmatic, outspoken leader; in the novel, he is none of the above.
The film employs 81 sets, including the interior of a French galley, 2 villages, the Bishop's rectory, a pottery factory, a convent, Paris streets, and a 1/8-mile sewer system. Some sets are more realistic than others. Alex North's music is sometimes overbearing and occasionally bizarre, as with the almost playful piccolo parts we hear in the barricade scenes, and the snare drum that anticipates Javert's suicide as if it were a circus act.