The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Genre: Romantic Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.

Release Date: December 29th, 1939 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: William Dieterle Actors: Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, Maureen O’Hara, Edmond O’Brien, Alan Marshal, Harry Davenport, Katharine Alexander




he end of the 15th century brought the Middle Ages to a close. Europe began to see great changes and France at last found peace. But superstition and prejudice often stood in the way, even as hope bloomed under the reign of King Louis XI (Harry Davenport). As he examines the latest advancements of a printing press – a new form of expression of thought – his archdeacon, Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), warns him of the power of such miraculous inventions. And Frollo plans to protect the people from dangerous new ideas, as if they’re the next iteration of the current problems of witches and gypsies.

Indeed, as a bustling festival gets underway, gypsies and other foreigners mingle with massive crowds as they push their way into the public square to take in the sights of acrobats, costumed plays, and all sorts of food vendors. A major attraction proves to be a contest for the ugliest face, while another is the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara), who dances with a tambourine as the King watches fondly. Her performance is abruptly halted when she spies the deformed bellringer of Notre Dame, Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), a hunchback with a pitifully grotesque visage. When he’s dragged from his hiding spot, the onlookers are shocked – yet they momentarily embrace his unsightliness to crown him the King of Fools.

Frollo puts a stop to the revelry, however, as Quasimodo is his henchman, having been picked up on the Parisian church steps as a child and safeguarded by the coldhearted, opportunistic advisor. Shortly thereafter, when soldiers pursue Esmeralda, she flees into the cathedral for sanctuary, where she manages to speak with the King, who offers to think over her people’s predicaments – while Frollo plots to keep her trapped in the bell tower, under the protection of Quasimodo. Meanwhile, poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) takes a liking to Esmeralda too, fending off the threats of the murderous King of the Beggars, Clopin (Thomas Mitchell), to help her, while additionally competing against the attentions of the handsome Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal), yet another suitor instantly smitten by the gypsy’s allure.

With a spectacular sense of adventure, plenty of romantic complications, and a classic beauty-and-the-beast scenario, this particular adaptation of Victor Hugo’s immortal tale is one of the best. In fact, with Laughton’s inimitable portrayal of the hunchback – a performance and a visual design that would become an archetype for every subsequent version – this just might be the definitive take (even with its deviations from the novel). And the story itself is staggering, tackling concepts of class disparity, socioeconomic woes, moral injustices, external beastliness versus internal benevolence, swashbuckling comeuppance, colossally evil villains, and acts of exceptional kindness, even as it heavy-handedly reiterates the ethnic persecution of the gypsies.

“I protest in the name of common sense!” These themes are given grander significance through breathtakingly unforgettable scenes, such as Quasimodo begging for water on the pillory, imprisoned Esmeralda’s plea for forgiveness from Gringoire and her ensuing sham trial, and her monumentally striking rescue on the steps of Notre Dame. “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” A few slower moments do arise, chiefly with the repetition of Frollo’s dastardly deeds and lengthy showdowns in front of the church, but Laughton and O’Hara’s reappearances tend to bring back the momentum. Their poignant interactions are the clear highlights of the production.

In many ways, the film also mirrors the Universal Monsters series, boasting mildly frightening sequences (such as chases through lightless alleyways), misunderstood monsters, blame and denial for freakish undertakings, and moments of destructive violence. There’s even some medieval torture thrown in for good measure. But at its heart, the picture is about love, taking several forms ranging from brotherly to lustful to spurned to transitory to unconditional to romantic. Quasimodo may not be the traditional hero, and he isn’t cut out to win the damsel in distress, but he’s an exceptionally cinematic creation – one who remains triumphant and inspirational, even while alone among the gargoyles atop the cathedral.

– Mike Massie

  • 8/10