The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Medieval drama about a gypsy girl who comes to Paris and the physically disfigured bell ringer she befriends. The narrative’s success derives from how it captures the tragic plight of our bell ringer in Paris’ legendary church so perfectly. Society’s tendency to build someone up one minute only to tear them down the next, is likewise paralleled in Quasimodo’s story arc. First being crowned “King of Fools” at the festival one moment, then they’re publicly whipping him in the town square soon thereafter.

The quality of the performances is what elevates this to a work of art. Charles Laughton gives the definitive performance in the sympathetic role of Quasimodo, the deformed hunchback of Notre Dame. A delightfully atypical choice for an actor often type-cast as people with arrogant or unscrupulous qualities. His expressive face speaks volumes. Indeed for the first third, he doesn’t utter a word. He’s supported by a stellar cast. Maureen O’Hara is radiant as Esmeralda, a lovely gypsy who inspires passion in several men. Her touching act of kindness toward Quasimodo at one of his darkest hours is a beautifully acted gesture filled with poignancy. At the other end of integrity is Frollo played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. A villainous tour de force, he is a stern, deeply flawed individual consumed by earthly desire and a lack of accountability. Also worth mentioning is Edmond O’Brien in his film debut. Esmeralda’s chemistry with him as the slightly goofy poet-playwright Gringoire is sweet. Much more believable for example, than her relationship with Phoebus, captain of the King’s guards. Her brief infatuation with him feels more like a story construct to advance the plot, than an affair with any honest emotion.

The production is highlighted by stunning set design. You might think the movie was filmed entirely in Paris from the vivid locations, but that is surprisingly not the case. Notre-Dame Square is a remarkable set at the RKO ranch. Whether it’s the elegant shots of ‘Festival of Fools’ carnival in the opening scenes or the storming of Notre Dame later on, the square is a character in itself. The Cathedral looms over it, an exquisitely realized vision of French Gothic architecture. The cast of hundreds further bring magical life to the city.

The drama takes a very simplistic, but refreshingly straightforward approach. Subtlety, however, is not director William Dieterle’s strong suit. From the intro we’re explicitly told the late 15th century is a time of superstition and prejudice. Paris is not a society tolerant of outsiders. From criminal gangs to the gypsies of Europe to Quasimodo himself, there were many outcasts of society. The story is painted in bold strokes. At times the script can be fairly simplistic, particularity with dialogue that is obviously manipulative. Many in the government oppose progress and political reform. Frollo, in particular, views free thought as subversive and leading to violence against the state. This is manifested in his single-minded focus to thwart this new invention called the printing press. Immediately upon the introduction of the device, his 20/20 foresight predicts it to be a dangerous tool that could be used to denounce the government. Seems more like an anachronistic projection than genuine cognitive ability if you ask me. Nevertheless, it does wonders in readily inciting the audience’s dislike of him in the first 10 minutes.

The reverent presentation of religion is an unexpected attitude that bears a mention, particularly for the 21st century audience. When Esmeralda first finds herself in the sanctuary of the Cathedral, her prayer to the Virgin Mary is sincerely moving, especially when contrasted to the self-serving prayers of the rest of the congregation. Furthermore, in the movie the Archdeacon, Claude Frollo, is a model of justice and virtue. This is a change from the character in the book where he was a clergyman overwhelmed by lust. Here, it is his younger brother, Jehan Frollo, that becomes the main antagonist instead. He opposes progress and political reform, so that forms much of his discord with the church. That he bitterly struggles with his attraction to Esmeralda is a bit harder to understand since he isn’t even a member of the clergy at all, but rather a sexually repressed judge and adviser to Louis XI, who simply wishes to be pure in thought. This probably had less to do with artistic license and more to do with the Hays Code which forbade depicting members of the clergy in a negative light. Still, it’s unexpected to see religion and even the church itself presented as an example of integrity and open-mindedness in thought.

Despite the many adaptations, few would argue that is the definitive version of the classic 1831 novel by Victor Hugo. (In 1996 Walt Disney Feature Animation produced a competent animated rendition which was heavily influenced in style and tone by this version.) Performances and set design combine perfectly to create a sweeping historical epic for the ages with a surprising amount of human intimacy. Whether it‘s 15th century France or elsewhere in the modern world, the film‘s themes transcend time and place.

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9 Responses to “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

  1. It’s been so long since I’ve seen this movie. Very good review.

  2. Excellent review, Mark! A little longer, I appreciate that. You got me really interested in watching the film. I love the animated version, too. It’s one of my favorite Disney movies: darker, riskier…

    • Thanks Fernando. I noticed some similarities in the way the characters looked and in the way they behaved. The Disney version is a musical so that definitely made the ’96 version very unique in that regard.

  3. Along with fernandorafael I appreciate the longer review in this case. It’s a movie of some importance, if for no other reason than being based on one of the most famous novels ever written and having been put on film lots of times, this, I suppose being generally considered the best – certainly it is in my experience. It’s hard to enjoy silent movies these days, but Lon Chaney’s portrayal of Quasimodo was a tour de force for makeup if nothing else, and it did get the pathos of the character across quite well.

    I think you can attribute a lot of the exaggerations that you allude to – of character and of the era-portrayed – to the story’s source. Victor Hugo certainly had a talent for emotionally involving his audience – is there a better example than “Les Miserables”? – but subtlety was something I’m not sure he’d ever heard of or wanted to. And the more sympathetic attitude toward religion than you might have expected from an heir of the French Revolution, was probably, as you imply, more an example of what was considered good and bad taste in the United States in the 1930’s than by the author of the novel; although to give the latter his due, the Bishop of Digne in Les Miserables was about as sympathetic a prelate anyone ever put on paper.

    And I agree with another of your points. Given the melodramatic spirit of the whole thing, if there was one glaring mistake, it was in the character of Phoebus. Esmeralda (especially as Maureen O’Hara made the part her own) would never have gone for a big stiff like that!

    • Thanks for the detailed comments. You made some interesting points. You got me thinking about Hugo’s Les Misérables. I’ve seen the musical play performed live, but never a film adaptation. Any you would care to recommend?

      • I claim no authority on the many movie versions that have been made of Les Miserables, but of the couple (of non-musical versions) I’ve seen, the most memorable was the one from 1935 — i.e. made a few years before Hunchback — that has the interesting casting features that Charles Laughton (in about as sharp a contrast to Quasimodo as you can imagine) plays the coldly calculating cop/villain Javert, while Cedric Hardwicke does the cleric again in a relatively small role, but this time he’s a saintly hero!

    • Les Misérables is most famous to modern audiences as the long running musical that producer Cameron Mackintosh adapted and opened in London’s West End in 1985. How odd that there have been actually 2 adaptations of Victor Hugo’s famous book since then, but NEITHER were of the musical.

  4. This film diffinitely warranted a longer review. The casting, except for Phoebus, was great. Charles Laughton was unmatched for his expressive portrayal of the title role and also for appearence. Sir Cedric Hardwicke was also extremely good in the evil role appossing both the hunchback and the gypsy. Having read the very emotionally charged Hugo book, I hadn”t remembered that Hardwicke wasn’t a cleric in the movie version. Your comment on that was very interesting. Also, I found it interesting that this was Edmond O”Brien”s film debut. This movie holds up on re-watching.

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