US Release Date: 09-06-1923
Directed by: Wallace Worsley
- Lon Chaney, as
- Patsy Ruth Miller, as
- Norman Kerry, as
- Phoebus de Chateaupers
- Kate Lester, as
- Madame de Condelaurier
- Winifred Bryson, as
- Fleur de Lys
- Nigel De Brulier, as
- Don Claudio
- Brandon Hurst, as
- Ernest Torrence as
Lon Chaney as Quasimodo and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda.
This silent screen version of the often filmed novel by Victor Hugo remains a powerfully entertaining movie nearly 90 years after its release. Lon Chaney gives another of his brilliant performances as the grotesque bell ringer Quasimodo, the so-called Hunchback of Notre Dame. He is deaf and half blind; his only joy in life is ringing the cathedral bells.
Chaney wore a fake “dead” eye, a wig, a putty nose, a plaster hump and braces on his legs that reportedly caused him problems for the rest of his short life. All in a days work for this incredibly dedicated actor. Still for all the make-up and props it is the way Chaney hobbles around, constantly licking his lips and grimacing that makes his Quasimodo so memorable. He never relies on those outward trappings to carry the part and manages to convey real emotion in several scenes.
Set in 15th Century Paris, ten years before Columbus discovered America, Hunchback personifies the word Gothic. It begins on the annual Festival of Fools. The one day when the oppressed subjects of King Louis XI’s tyranny get to let loose and have some fun. Quasimodo gets crowned King of the Fools during the revelry.
The central characters get introduced one by one. There are two priest brothers; one is noble and the other corrupt. There is Clopin the leader of the peasants and Phoebus the dashing Captain of the Guard. Then of course there is Esmeralda the gypsy orphan girl raised by Clopin who gets caught between the commoners and her love for the aristocratic Phoebus. She is the sun around which the other characters revolve.
The cathedral set is massive and remained standing until it burned down in 1967. Over 750 technicians worked on this movie and Hollywood legend has it that many of the female extras in the crowd scenes were prostitutes recruited from downtown Los Angeles. Further legend has it that they did a bustling side business in-between scenes.
The story builds to a thrilling climax. I won’t give away details. Anyone unfamiliar with the story will have to watch the movie to find out what happens. Ten to fifteen minutes of the original print are lost but not enough to hurt the story. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a masterpiece of early American cinema.
Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
When it comes to silent films, it is definitely the comedies that hold up best after all these years. It's no coincidence that Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd are the three most enduring stars of the era. Dramas of the period tend to be overly melodramatic. Dated more by their acting, directing and editing styles than they are by the fact that they feature no spoken dialogue. 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, while still plagued by some common issues of the day, manages to be one of the exceptions to that rule. It remains an entertaining film, even in these modern times, despite being produced 90 years ago.
In terms of sheer scale, the epics of the silent era have rarely been matched. Advances in technology gradually decreased the number of people required to make any film and it's unlikely we'll ever see the likes of them again. The sets for this film, as Patrick mentioned, were truly massive, covering 19 acres and requiring 750 technicians to maintain. The night shoots, which took months to film, required the services of more electricians than were used on any other film, before or since. It was a massive undertaking to the point that I had to wonder if it wouldn't have been cheaper just to fly everyone to France and shoot the movie at the site of the real Notre Dame.
So much effort went into the look of the film that it's a shame a quality print of the film no longer exists. All 35mm versions of the film are gone and we must make do with 16mm, show-at-home prints, that the studio issued for private screenings during the 1920s. Also, since the film has fallen into Public Domain, the quality of the available prints varies greatly from scratchy and free online versions, to the probably-as-clean-as-it's-going-to-get, restored version for sale on DVD. Even with the poorest quality version however, the story still manages to entertain.
I do agree that Chaney does a good job as Quasimodo, but I don't think I would go so far as to say that he never relies on the outward trappings for his performance. The makeup and costume play a huge part of his character and no matter how good an actor Chaney was, he wouldn't have made the same impact without it. And the makeup, along with everything else to do with the production, is topnotch. Surely, if the Oscars had existed that year, this movie would have swept the technical awards.
Like most people, I suppose, I was familiar with the general story of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I didn't know the details. For instance, I didn't know how it was going to end, but I had a suspicion as the story progressed. It's difficult to foresee a happy ending for Quasimodo. It's to the movie's credit, and the main reason why I think its has held up so well, that I still wanted him to have one anyway and was curious to see how it would all work out during the finale.
Sure, the plot has a few coincidences and some melodramatic subplots that never really go anywhere--I'm thinking mainly of Esmeralda's mom--but they don't detract from the overall storyline.
My only other complaint would be that like many silent films, the pacing is slow at times, although not as slow as other films of the time. Editors of the period were too apt to leave title cards up for longer than necessary and the camera would often linger when it needed to move or cut to something else.
There are other silent movie epics that used massive sets and thousands of extras. While many of those are visually impressive, I haven't seen any of them that match the entertainment value of this one. It's held up remarkably well.
During production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
My only knowledge of the story of Quasimodo, prior to seeing this film, was based on Walt Disney's slightly dark 1996 animated version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. In that film, Quasimodo climbs about the cathedral walls as if the edifice is merely a play ground. It is very reminiscent of the opening scene in this version where Lon Chaney looks down on the people of Paris (see photo in Scott's review) and then climbs down the outside wall to the ground, as the crowd watches in amazement.
Like my brothers, I was impressed with the sets and Lon Chaney's prosthetics/make up. Modern film makers can brag all they want about special effects, but they have nothing on the pioneers of film making. Had this film sound and been filmed in color, it would stand up today against any CGI filled historical epic.
The cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris (French for "Our Lady of Paris") took nearly 200 years to be built as we see it today. Revolution and vandalism has scarred this great structure over the years, yet it remains, along side the Eiffel Tower and The Arc de Triomphe, as the most recognizable of French monuments. It is practically a character itself in this movie. At first we see it from the outside as a gloriously detailed piece of architecture. Later we go inside where it becomes the spot for Esmeralda and Phoebus to meet in secret. Lastly, it is the location for the exciting conclusion.
Although the film looks amazing, the movie is flawed by the story itself. It spends far too much time away from Quasimodo. The film is named after him, yet Esmeralda and Phoebus get much more screen time than he does. Their love story, her history and the class warfare side plot add too many scenes that seem to drag by.
Quasimodo is the heart of the story and the movie benefits from anytime he is on screen. His relationship with Esmeralda is far more fascinating than her love affair with Phoebus. Esmeralda saw past Quasimodo's disfigured body and gave him water, while others ignored his pleas of thirst. He returned that kindness to her when he saw her falsely accused and brought her into the cathedral for sanctuary. It is in that theme of empathy that this story is universal.
Photos © Copyright Universal Pictures (1923)