July 23, 2008
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
"Notre-Dame De Paris", known in English as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", is definitely one of the most popular French novels of all time. Written by Victor Hugo, this Gothic tragedy explores many of his favorite themes, including social injustices and romantic idealism. However, the element that is nowadays the most famous trait of the novel, is without a doubt the character of Quasimodo, and the mistreatment he suffers due to his horrible deformities. While Hugo didn't intend this to be the main theme of the novel, the enormous appealing of Quasimodo quickly turned him into the iconic representation of good nature under a monstrous face, and so it is not a surprise that this is also the angle taken by the film adaptations of the novel. In this the first movie version of the immortal novel, the classic role of Quasimodo is performed in film for the first time by another legend, "The Man of a Thousand Faces", Lon Chaney Sr.
Set in the 15th Century, the movie starts as just another day in the simple life of Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), the bell-ringer of the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris who has spend most of his life inside the Cathedral because most people fear his gruesome deformity. Under the care of archdeacon Claude Frollo (Nigel De Brulier), Quasimodo has lived a good, albeit lonely life; however, this is about to change when the archdeacon's brother Jehad (Brandon Hurst), orders Quasimodo to help him to kidnap a young gypsy girl named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) that he wants for himself. Jehad's plan fails as Phoebus (Norman Kerry), Captain of the Guards, rescues Esmeralda and takes Quasimodo to prison, however, this will be only the beginning of the tragedy that will unfold under the shadow of the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Adapted by Edward T. Lowe Jr. and Perley Poore Sheehan, the story is really a good adaptation that remains true to the novel's themes of human tragedy despite the fact that the story was significantly simplified. While the focus is certainly on Quasimodo (and he is indeed made a more prominent and sympathetic figure), the screenplay remains an epic tragedy about life and death in Paris, and takes its time to introduce and develop every character, surprisingly including many of the novel's subplots that became forgotten in subsequent versions of the story. The story unfolds nicely and with a good pace, slowly introducing us to the universe of this characters and carefully setting the basis for the climatic finale of the tragedy. Interestingly, despite the changes done to the story, the movie keeps the dark depressing tone of Hugo's Gothic classic.
Wallace Worsley may not be a director known for his personal style (the fact that most of his work is lost doesn't help), but he takes on this monumental project with courage and makes this epic tale work nicely. While Worsley was not the first choice to direct the movie, he already had directed Chaney in four movies before this one (including the classic "The Penalty"), so being already familiar with Chaney's method of work, Worsley could let him do his thing while he focused on the difficult organization of the complex project. With a cast of thousands and enormous sets, Worsley makes 15th Century Paris to come alive once again and, just like Victor Hugo would wanted, the Cathedral of Notre Dame is made another character of the story thanks to the beautiful cinematography that gives an ominous atmosphere to the building.
Lon Chaney is without a doubt the star and highlight of the movie, delivering one of the best performances as Quasimodo (second only to Charles Laughton), and creating one of his most amazing works of make-up. Proving why he is called "The Man of a Thousand Faces", Chaney makes a gruesome, yet very expressive "monster" that truly conveys the nature of the almost silent character. Patsy Ruth Miller is very effective as Esmeralda, and nicely avoids exaggerated gestures in her dramatic scenes; something that sadly can't be said about Norman Kerry as Phoebus, although being fair, his character is not as developed as the rest. Brandon Hurst is simply amazing, and sometimes even manages to overshadow the enormous Chaney, with a remarkably wicked portrayal of evil in his performance as Jehad. Truly another of the film's highlights.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" was Universal's most successful film of 1923, and honestly, it's not hard to tell why. Not only Lon Chaney's magnificent performance as Chaney (as well as his outstanding work of make-up) is a true highlight of the film, the lavish sets built for the movie are definitely one of the most amazing works done in silent films, with the reconstruction of Notre Dame's Western facade being extremely detailed and actually very accurate. One would think that given the attention payed to the technical aspects of the film, the performances of the actors were unimportant, but thankfully this is not the case, as Chaney and company proved to be up to the challenge in this movie. As a side note, among the many assistant directors who helped Worsley in this project, there was a young man named William Wyler receiving his first work in the movie industry.
Depsite its flaws, this first version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" remains as one of the best movies of the silent era, and one of the best versions of Victor Hugo's classic. It's probably a bit dated by now, but it still retains the beauty and monumental power of its initial release. Inaugurating the horror genre for Universal Films, this epic tragedy proudly ranks as a classic of the genre and of cinema in general.
Buy "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" (1923) - Remastered Edition
Watch "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" (1923) - Public domain edition