The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Aaron Cutler
Presented by Carl Laemmle; produced by Irving Thalberg; directed by Wallace Worsley; adapted by Perley Poor Sheehan and Edward T. Lowe, Jr. from Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame; cinematography by Robert Newhard; edited by Edward Curtis, Maurice Pivar, and Sidney Singerman; art direction by E. E. Sheeley; starring Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Ernest Torrence, Norman Kerry, Brandon Hurst, Raymond Hatton, and Nigel de Brulier. Edition produced by David Shepard and Serge Bromberg. Score composed by Donald Hunsberger and adapted and conducted by Robert Israel. Blu-ray, B&W, 110 min., 1923. A Flicker Alley release, http://www.flickeralley.com.
A deformed man kneels in chains before a large crowd. He howls in pain as people mock him. His brute cries for mercy are finally met by a young woman who offers him a jug of water. He refuses at first, but then drinks gladly and stares at her. He does not know her name or anything else about her, but it is clear that she has won his loyalty. For one of the very few times in his life, someone has shown him kindness.
The woman is a Parisian Gypsy girl named Esmeralda (played by Patsy Ruth Miller), and the man is Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), a deaf-mute hunchbacked bell ringer at the Notre-Dame Cathedral who is being punished for a crime he didn’t commit. This fifteenth-century-set scene of their first meeting comes from the 1923 Universal Pictures film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, directed by early Universal fixture Wallace Worsley. Quasimodo has been framed for an attempted kidnapping of Esmeralda by the wicked church official Jehan Frollo (Brandon Hurst), who lusts after her despite her love for the noble military captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry). In time, Quasimodo will go free, Esmeralda will herself be falsely arrested, and the hunchback will shelter her inside his beloved Notre-Dame Cathedral, where he will devote his life to keeping her safe.
This film version of Hunchback (which followed several prior screen adaptations of Hugo’s novel) departs in many ways from its source text, an impassioned defense of Gothic architecture that employs the Notre-Dame Cathedral as its protagonist. In the film, elaborate sets serve chiefly as backdrops for their actors, including the justly lead-billed Lon Chaney, whose great star performance as Quasimodo was one of several reasons why this lavish screen epic became a tremendous box-office success.
The film has recently been released on Blu-ray for the first time courtesy of Flicker Alley, a vital home video distributor of older films, in collaboration with The Blackhawk Films Collection. This edition pairs the silent Hunchback with a rousing musical score composed by Donald Hunsberger and conducted by Robert Israel, and it improves upon Image Entertainment’s 2007 DVD release with a new, high-quality transfer of the same source material—a multitinted 16mm reduction print of a shortened version of the film, struck by Universal itself in the 1920s for private rentals. No 35mm prints of the original release cut are known to exist today; Flicker Alley offers, for the foreseeable future, the best available version of this Hunchback.
It also provides a wealth of bonus features (including some also found on the Image Entertainment release) that give useful context for the film. They include a digital reproduction of the film’s original accompanying printed program (sold at twenty-five cents to patrons of Hunchback’s initial run); the surviving sequences of a 1915 short film called Alas and Alack, in which Chaney menacingly played a hunchback threatening a young woman several years before his Quasimodo would strive to save Esmeralda from harm; some behind-the-scenes footage in which an out-of-costume Chaney scales the film set’s walls for the sake of viewer amusement; and a printed essay and feature-length audio commentary by Michael F. Blake, author of three books about Chaney, whose approach—more anecdotal than analytical, with eager and ample offerings of backstage tales—honors his material.
Most of Blake’s stories involve Chaney, who this release presents as having authored Universal’s Hunchback at least as much as Worsley and Universal producer Irving Thalberg did. Among the historical misconceptions with which Blake does away is that the film was created at Thalberg’s initiative. In reality, the adaptation was Chaney’s brainchild, and had been at least since 1920, when the actor publicly stated his desire to play Quasimodo onscreen.
Chaney was nearly forty years old at the time of Hunchback’s making, and had essentially spent his life preparing for it. Like Quasimodo, his parents had been deaf mutes, and Chaney had entered the world of theater as a child partly because of the gift for pantomime that he had developed in communication with them. He began working in films as a bit player with great range, always carrying with him a suitcase full of makeup that he could apply to transform himself into available parts. He soon earned the publicity nickname “Man of a Thousand Faces,” which stuck with him after he achieved stardom as a man feigning a disability to be cured by a faith healer in the now mostly lost The Miracle Man (1919).
Some of Chaney’s best-known roles in his surviving films include the title character in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the scientist turned tormented clown in the melodrama He Who Gets Slapped (1924), and the legless crime boss in the underworld story The Penalty (1920), one of four Worsley-directed films in which he appeared prior to Hunchback. In all of them, the actor wins sympathy through showing how monstrous human beings can look, and in making monsters seem human. Chaney explained his intentions behind playing these characters, whose ranks included Quasimodo, in a 1925 article for the magazine Movie: “I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals.”
He studied Victor Hugo’s novel closely as he shaped his Quasimodo. Hugo’s descriptions of a “tetrahedral nose,” a “horseshoe mouth,” and other physical distortions led Chaney to nearly three-and-a-half hours’ worth of daily self-designed makeup application that included inserting false teeth, taping one of his eyes shut, and fastening into place a plaster hump on his back that weighed around fifteen pounds. In further fidelity to Hugo, Chaney balanced Quasimodo’s corporal girth with a spiritual lightness. The character’s “indescribable and redoubtable air of vigor, agility, and courage” can be seen in Chaney’s gleefully athletic tugging of the church’s bell ropes or his sudden bounds across frames and up and down walls, with Quasimodo at his most animated when rescuing his beloved Esmeralda.
The actor proves as engaging in close-ups as he does in long and medium shots. Across Chaney’s face there constantly plays what Hugo called Quasimodo’s “mixture of malice, amazement, and sadness.” Unlike the air of lonesome introspection and self-pity assumed by other screen Quasimodos (with Charles Laughton’s performance in William Dieterle’s 1939 film coming to mind as a strong example), Chaney brings an animalistic, instinctual quality to the role. His Quasimodo lives to serve, and seems happiest when potential masters accept him.
The film’s other players do not match Chaney’s work, though in fairness, one shouldn’t expect them to do so. Blake criticizes Worsley as a weak director of actors, and it is true that his direction tends to push them towards histrionic emoting and arm waving that could have seemed outdated even at the time. That same direction, however, also gives space for many great moments with Chaney, including one that takes place after Quasimodo has first brought an unconscious Esmeralda into the Notre-Dame Cathedral. She awakens and, seeing him by her bedside, recoils, which wounds him. As she stays there, however, and comes to understand that he’s helped her, she begins to pet his head. For one of the very few times in the film, Quasimodo’s body relaxes, satisfied.
Aaron Cutler lives in São Paulo and keeps a film criticism Website, The Moviegoer, at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.
To purchase Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray edition of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, click here.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine