This is the third film version I’ve seen of Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris, better known in the English speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it’s a large scale story to adapt dramatically in any era. Yet it’s a particularly massive undertaking for a time when films had no spoken dialogue, so it’s no wonder they called upon the talents of Lon Chaney to play the story’s best known character, Quasimodo.
Chaney was far more than a master of make-up. Even through pounds of prosthetics he knew how to convey every emotion with just a simple look. There’s a heartbreaking moment when he recognizes Esmeralda as the woman who gave him water while he was receiving a public beating, but is quickly dismayed when she recoils as he rushes to greet her. With half his face covered, Chaney manages to convey Quasimodo’s simplicity, his loneliness, his compassion, and every moment of anguish and pain.
The rest of the cast holds up their end of the story well opposite Chaney. Patsy Ruth Miller makes a good Esmeralda, particularly in the scenes when she begins to warm toward Quasimodo after he offers her sanctuary in the cathedral from the hangman’s noose. But I think Chaney’s greatest co-star is simply the enormous scope of the project. It’s just amazing to think in the early 1920s that a huge recreation of Notre Dame Cathedral was built on the back-lots of Hollywood.
It’s just a shame that this film hasn’t been preserved that well. A lot of its grandeur has been lost over time.
I do have to wonder, however, if I will ever see an accurate dramatic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. I read the novel shortly after seeing Disney’s attempt at making it into musical comedic romp, and found that the original story is far darker than Hollywood would have us believe, and no version I’ve seen so far has been willing preserve Hugo’s original tone. Granted, there are versions I haven’t seen, so maybe I’ll be proven wrong.
This version, however, was still a noble endeavor, though I think the 1939 version with Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara is still my favorite.
This week’s supporting features:
The Looney Tunes short Eatin’ on the Cuff, or The Moth Who Came to Dinner (1942)
The Our Gang short Choo-Choo! (1932)
Dracula’s Daughter (1936) starring Gloria Holden, Otto Kruger, Marguerite Churchill, and Edward Van Sloan