The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 13 min.

Release Date: September 6th, 1923 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Wallace Worsley Actors: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Kate Lester, Winifred Bryson, Nigel De Brulier, Brandon Hurst, Ernest Torrance, Tully Marshall, Harry Van Meter, Raymond Hatton

 


 

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otre Dame, the cathedral church of Paris, was a sanctuary where the persecuted could find protection, particularly in this age of brutality – ten years before Columbus discovered America. During the Festival of Fools, the one day of the year that the townsfolk embrace unrestrained pleasure in the face of routine tyranny, King Louis XI observes the festivities with disgust. So too does Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), a deaf, half-blind hunchback – called an inhuman freak by the jeering onlookers in the square below his cherished bell tower, where he sits in isolation (or acrobatically taunts the people who laugh at his deformities).

Clopin (Ernest Torrance), “The King of Beggars” and an enemy of the king, oversees the celebration, calling upon his adopted daughter Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), whom he bought from Gypsies, to dance during the close of the revelry. When Quasimodo is crowned the King of the Fools, he sees Esmeralda’s performance, and is overwhelmed by her beauty. Phoebus de Chateaupers (Norman Kerry), the Captain of the Guard, also takes note of Esmeralda’s loveliness, which distances him from his fiancee, Fleur de Lys (Winifred Bryson). And all the while, the archdeacon’s troublemaking brother Jehan (Brandon Hurst) conspires to gain power – and to possess Esmeralda for himself, using slave Quasimodo to attempt a kidnapping.

The film belongs to Chaney, who transforms into the titular hunchback with such exhaustive dedication that audiences would be hard-pressed to imagine anyone else in the role. From his mannerisms to his prosthetics (which he designed himself from original sketches and descriptions in Victor Hugo’s novel), he’s a cinematic wonder in this “Universal Super-Jewel” – a high-budget epic that would put both the studio and Chaney in the spotlight. In one of the first striking sequences, Quasimodo gets a taste of the King’s justice, receiving lashes in the town square, again receiving no sympathy from the scoffing public. Yet Esmeralda herself, the victim of his actions, is the one to provide water to the wretched soul after he’s left bloodied and chained in the sun. As is expected from Hugo’s tragedy-filled works, the more wholesome the protagonist, the greater their suffering, which is directed toward the young woman when she’s also wrongfully accused of a crime. And then, of course, there’s the climactic rescue, featuring Quasimodo’s triumphant cry of “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”

Praise must also be given to the massive sets, built on studio lots yet containing a bounty of details and incredible recreations of Parisian locales, as well as to the costuming and makeup. Though the storytelling contains unnecessary flashbacks, an overabundance of intertitles, and more characters than it needs (opting to include minor roles from the source material; here, even Marie [Eulalie Jensen], the bitter crone who lost her child, comes across as extraneous), the scope and the designs are entirely fitting of such a colossal undertaking. With a lavish ball, scandals, betrayals, medieval torture, stark divisions between aristocrats and beggars, comic relief (chiefly from Gringoire the poet, played by Raymond Hatton), a monumental uprising (boasting more than 2,000 extras), and an unforgettable finale, this early adaptation of a preeminent example of French literature is a must-see masterpiece of visual storytelling.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10