There is a moment in William Dieterle’s film classic, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) where the enlightened and amused King Louis XI (Henry Davenport) suggests his solemn chief justice, Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) take notice of the people’s queer fascination in crowning the ugliest representative among them as their ‘King of Fools’ during an annual pagan holiday. The point is well put, as tales of the grotesque have long captivated mankind; our collective enthrallment, and arguably macabre curiosity, with the oddities of life, perfectly dovetailing in Victor Hugo’s immortal French gothic novel, first published in 1831. With its emphasis on the tragic deformities of our ‘hero’, Quasimodo (monumentally incarnated by Charles Laughton), and harking all the way back to another French author, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont even more perennially revived, La Belle et la Bête (a.k.a. Beauty and the Beast, published in 1756), Hunchback is Hugo’s highly romanticized illustration of humanity’s reciprocal perversity for harshly judging most any ‘book by its cover’. Hunchback is a parable for humanity’s mad, oft’ inhumane treatment of the unfortunates living among us, ascertained as ‘unworthy’ and therefore excluded without question. In the nearly 200 years since Hunchback’s publication, mankind has narrowly budged from this inexplicable lack of compassion.
Like Leprince de Beaumont, Hugo is intent on revealing the innate qualities of a man who outwardly is much feared and equally as reviled as a hideously disfigured outcast, condemned to spend his days hidden and apart from the rest of the rabble, yet internally harboring all the goodness we could hope to find in a true friend, companion, lover and/or savior. The parallels between de Beaumont’s ‘beast’ and Hugo’s Quasimodo, self-sacrificing individuals – misperceived by the masses as social misanthropes – and the tale of the Christ, are understated, though nevertheless, morally as obvious. However, unlike Beauty and the Beast, the grand tragedy of Hugo’s masterpiece is its inescapable lack of reprieve for the misshapen bell ringer; made the brunt and repository of all Paris’ contempt for itself, demoralized as the laughing stock and cruelly humiliated; later, publicly flogged, and finally, abandoned to mourn the inevitable loss of the sultry gypsy girl, Esmeralda (the luminous Maureen O’Hara in her American debut). Although drawn to Quasimodo’s chivalry (for he does save her from the gallows in a death-defying and heroic leap from the bell tower by a rope, swooping past the writhing hordes to whisk the resigned Esmeralda to his ‘sanctuary’ as one of Errol Flynn’s swashbucklers might), Esmeralda is nevertheless more attracted to the nubile masculinity of the intellectualized peasant, Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) whom she earlier has taken for husband merely to spare his life.
That Hugo’s literary classic should eventually find its way to Hollywood is perhaps no great surprise; for it possesses all the elements of a truly outstanding motion picture. That it became a much revered 1923 silent epic made at Universal and starring Lon Chaney is also not so much of a stretch, as Chaney was the ‘man of a thousand faces’ and Universal had already embarked to make some of the best ‘horror’ movies in the business (They would continue to be regarded as Hollywood’s own version of Transylvania for many years yet to follow). But that Hunchback would reach the epitome of its critical, financial and certainly ‘artistic’ cinematic success in 1939, a year heavily contested with quintessential offerings in virtually every genre, in an opulent remake by RKO – considered a minor studio – is not only impressive; it is miraculous. In the years since its release, the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has remained the cultural touchstone by which all subsequent versions have been judged – mostly, as inferior.
The onus for the film’s enduring reputation rests on Charles Laughton’s supremely satisfying performance as the deaf and tortured nobleman trapped inside a monster’s body. Whereas Lon Chaney had approached Quasimodo as a horrific mutant ostracized from and by life, Laughton’s performance allows us to recommend the similarities rather than the differences between Quasimodo and humanity at large. We share in his pain because Laughton plays the beleaguered bell ringer as a remote and very lost child, yet with a sense of imperishable dignity; a man unable to convince the outside world of his self-worth until that triumphant moment when Quasimodo takes the initiative to rescue Esmeralda from the gallows when even the potency of Gringoire’s impassioned pleas, disseminated via the printing press to the masses, have been emasculated by the authoritarian rule of the state. Wearing laborious and extremely heavy latex, including an exaggerated hump, prosthetic eye and snout, designed by makeup artist extraordinaire, Perc Westmore (borrowed from Universal), Laughton nevertheless achieves his own distinct emotional bearing from underneath these constricting appliances. It is said Laughton began his transformation into Quasimodo at 3am every morning, appearing on set by 8 o’clock for his first take. The actor’s more ambitious stunt work was, in fact, convincingly doubled by two stunt men. Yet, it is the quieter moments, mostly steeped in a sort of majestic melancholy, that mark Laughton’s Quasimodo as a truly first-rate and endearing creation; beloved, at least, amongst movie goers.
The other immeasurable gift to the production is Maureen O’Hara; fresh and appealing, striking an indelible chord of resonance as Esmeralda; the hypnotically beautiful gypsy lass to whom four men shall commit their hearts; three with very tragic results. Esmeralda is desired by Frollo, a self-professed pious clergyman who sheaths his sexual guilt from the world, but by extension betrays his vows, becoming a murderer to satisfy his lust. Esmeralda’s sexuality also hypnotizes Gringoire, who pursues her into the gypsy encampment at his own peril. She captivates – and, in return, is captivated by, the Captain of the guard, Phoebus (Alan Marshal), who openly proclaims his sole purpose to explore her feminine wiles for the moment and his own satisfaction. The toxicity in their brief ‘relationship’ (for it is very brief) is thwarted by Frollo, who jealously plunges a dagger into Phoebus’ back as he and Esmeralda are about to make love. Recognizing she can never be his, Frollo next condemns the girl for his murderous act, presiding over the case as both judge and jury. Unable to offer an alternative theory of the crime, Esmeralda is condemned to hang in the public square.
Produced by Pandro S. Berman, the pint-sized zeitgeist of creativity responsible for RKO’s lucrative cycle of Astaire/Rogers movie musicals, this Hunchback of Notre Dame is given some extraordinary production values; Alfred Newman’s regal underscore, borrowing from traditional Gregorian chants (a portion of which would eventually find their way into his penultimate orchestrations for 2oth Centuryt-Fox’s The Robe 1953); but even more impressive, Van Nest Polglase art direction, recreating whole Parisian streets and byways down to their last architectural detail, plus a full-sized replica of the ground floor and upper turrets of Paris’ famed Notre Dame cathedral (the rest of its resplendent architecture recreated as a flawless matte painting, seamlessly photographed on glass in perfect registration with the free-standing set by cinematographer, Joseph H. August. In every way, The Hunchback of Notre Dame impresses beyond all expectation. In a year where it might easily have been swept aside by its contenders, the film became RKO’s most profitable picture – not only of that year, but to date in the studio’s history, earning nearly $3 million dollars; no small feat in the epoch and shadow of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz.
Our tale begins with King Louis XI’s personal inspection of the printing press, a miraculous device for the replication of books and pamphlets that the King’s advisor, Frollo has openly condemned as a tool of the devil. As concocted by the Teutonic Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Frollo is a haunted figure whose own moral ambiguity is cloaked by his outward inability to move along with the more ‘progressive’ times. In the novel, Frollo is a much more obvious villain whose youth has been squandered on indulgences and corruptions of every shape and size, making his leap into lust and murder much less of a shocker, but far more the extension of the sort of reprobate he truly is and has always been. Brother of the Archdeacon (Walter Hampden), Frollo’s aspirations to be more like this spiritual guide are thwarted by the appearance of Esmeralda at the Festival of Fools. Denied access into Paris along with the other gypsies, including their self-professed ‘king’ Clopin (Thomas Mitchell), by the Royal Guard at Frollo’s request, Esmeralda nevertheless manages to sneak in of her own accord and become lost in the crowd. She attracts public attention by dancing in the city square with mesmeric abandonment, collecting tokens cast at her feet. The King is enchanted by her performance. But Frollo is truly bewitched. From this moment forward, her memory will continue to work its terrible spell on his already fragile psyche.
In the meantime, the intellectual peasant, Gringoire is staging a serious play in the square. The rabble admonishes his devotion to ‘truth’ in favor of their search for the ugliest living person among them to be crowned the ‘king of fools’. Several candidates are put forth before someone latches onto the idea of bringing Quasimodo down from the bell tower. Rarely seen in public, Quasimodo’s extraordinary ugliness earns him the coveted title. He is momentarily exalted as the undisputed best of the worst, carried on the crowd’s shoulders and made their public spectacle. Frollo orders the guards to arrest Esmeralda for having illegally entered the city. Instead, she takes refuge in the cathedral, protected by the Archdeacon who declares the state has no power within its walls. Esmeralda prays to a candle-lit statute of the Virgin Mary. But she is condemned by Frollo for being a heathen, or worse, the devil’s emissary on earth. Esmeralda begs the King to reconsider her plight. She points out that gypsies are not evil, nor even inherently bad. They are not a blight on the city but rather desperate to be a part of its design. King Louis is empathetic and agrees to reconsider the matter.
In the meantime, Esmeralda sneaks off in the dead of night to be reunited with Clopin and her people. Unknowingly, she is pursued by Gringoire who is desperately in love with her. Discovered by Clopin and ordered to hang for having discovered the secret location of their gypsy camp, Gringoire pleads for his life by explaining the only reason he has come is to spare Esmeralda from being taken prisoner by the royal guard for having left the sanctuary of Notre Dame. Moved by Gringoire’s chivalry, though not enough to love him, Esmeralda nevertheless agrees to marry him in order to spare his life. Frollo orders Esmeralda be taken to the bell tower. Alas, the initial appearance of Quasimodo terrorizes her and she flees. Frollo then orders Quasimodo to pursue the girl. Knowing the inner catacombs far better than she, Quasimodo easily heads off Esmeralda, carrying her back to the cathedral against her will. In the meantime, Gringoire calls upon Capt. Phoebus to rescue Esmeralda from the church. Phoebus is an arrogant man, easily the envy of all others and much desired by most any woman he momentarily chooses for his own. After the Archdeacon denies Gringoire the opportunity to see his wife, Gringoire takes it upon himself to have various leaflets printed on the press and distributed throughout the streets of Paris, condemning her imprisonment and the King’s complicity in allowing such barbarisms to endure.
Quasimodo dotes on Esmeralda and she comes to recognize the genuineness of the man hidden beneath this hideously disfigured façade. Alas, Frollo has Quasimodo condemned for aiding in Esmeralda’s escape. Quasimodo is tied to the rack in the public square, stripped bare and given fifty lashes. Ever silent in his torture, he nevertheless prays for mercy. It is denied. He then asks for water to quench his parched lips. The crowd hysterically laughs. Herein, director Dieterle draws another parallel of inquiry: who is more the beast, the wretch on the rack or the jeering rabble, come to gawk and throw rubbish at him, their own faces contorted by their angry cries? Amidst the chaos, Esmeralda emerges from the cathedral at her own peril. The crowd is stunned into silence by her compassion as she comforts Quasimodo with a small canteen of cool water.
The King exonerates the gypsies and Esmeralda and Gringoire are reunited. The gypsies are then invited by the nobles to entertain at a lavish garden party. Alas, before the night’s festivities, Frollo pulls Esmeralda aside to reveal his burning lust for her. She is appalled and pulls away; emerging from beyond a stone temple to perform her dance for the gathered gentry; among them, Phoebus, who is immediately captivated by her charms. She too is drawn to his manly grace, the pair slinking off to a nearby meadow where she willingly submits to him, despite knowing he has little to no interest in her beyond this fleeting moment of passion. Alas, this too is ruined when Frollo, who has been quietly eyeing the couple, suddenly leaps from the shadows, plunging a dagger into Phoebus back before disappearing into the night. As Esmeralda has not seen Frollo, and the bloody knife is left behind, her screams draw the nobles to the wrong conclusion. Esmeralda has killed the Captain of their Guard in cold blood for attempting to have his way with her.
Esmeralda is taken to trial; the court, presided over by a series of judges managed in their decision by Frollo. Tortured into a confession, Esmeralda’s verdict is interrupted by the King, who cannot believe this gypsy girl could commit such a violent act. The King offers Esmeralda one final opportunity for a reprieve; placing before her his own jewel-encrusted knife and the blade used to murder Phoebus. Esmeralda is blind-folded and told to choose her weapon. If she takes the King’s it will prove her innocence. Regrettably, confused in her inability to see, Esmeralda chooses Frollo’s dagger instead. Convicted of murder, Esmeralda is taken to the public square to the gallows where she will be hanged. But Quasimodo refuses to allow the injustice to happen, risking his own life by swinging on a rope from the turrets of the Notre Dame, then back again with Esmeralda’s lifeless body in his grasp, declaring ‘sanctuary’ for all to hear. The crowds wildly cheer him on. From his position near the gallows, Gringoire breathes a sigh of relief. His wife has been spared.
Realizing the nobles will revoke Notre Dame’s right of sanctuary, Gringoire and Clopin endeavor conflicting methods to ensure Esmeralda’s safety and/or escape from Paris. Gringoire writes a devastating pamphlet against the crown, distributed to the masses; designed to incite them into an uprising against the state. Meanwhile, Clopin gathers his minions for a daring overnight raid on the church. They will save Esmeralda from her fate. But Quasimodo has other ideas, dropping heavy blocks of granite; then, pouring a vat of scalding oil from Notre Dame’s rooftops onto the crowds below. In the deluge, Clopin is killed. The siege narrowly averted, Frollo confesses to his brother he murdered Phoebus. Expecting absolution for his sins, Frollo is bitterly disappointed when the Archdeacon declares he no longer has a brother. Frollo now endeavors to see Esmeralda destroyed for his crime anyway, claiming the powers of her bewitching femininity are responsible for driving him to commit the crime. Bound by his canon of ethics, the Archdeacon can say nothing about Frollo’s confession. However, after reading Gringoire’s pamphlet, the King is mildly incensed, asking the Archdeacon to explain what has happened. In reply, the Archdeacon tells Louis he is waiting for his brother to speak.
Frollo storms the Notre Dame, intent on destroying Esmeralda once and for all. He pursues her to the bell tower. At the last possible moment, Quasimodo appears, tossing Frollo off the balcony to his death. Esmeralda is pardoned by the King and allowed to leave the church. She is welcomed by Gringoire. Presumably newly chaste by her death-defying experience, Esmeralda departs in a horse-drawn cart with her husband at her side and the rest of the gypsy beggars following them for parts unknown. Observing from the bell tower as cheering crowds gather to escort Esmeralda and Gringoire to safety, Quasimodo, his heart breaking, clutches one of Notre Dame’s stone-carved gargoyles, declaring, “Why was I not made of stone, like thee?” The camera pulls back to reveal the spectacular vista from Quasimodo’s God-spot; the bell ringer doomed, it seems, to remain that solitary, yet heroic savior of the downtrodden.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an exquisite archetype in a year of eloquently refined cinematic adaptations from novels by Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), James Hilton (Goodbye, Mr. Chips), John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men), Frank L. Baum (The Wizard of Oz) and Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind). Peerlessly executed from most any perspective one might choose to analyze the magnitude of its greatness, in hindsight, it remains shocking the picture was only marginally nominated for two very minor Academy Awards (Best Sound Recording – John Aalberg and Best Score – Alfred Newman). It won neither. Any other year, The Hunchback of Notre Dame most assuredly would not only have been nominated for Best Picture. It likely would also have won that coveted Oscar. Viewed today, its merits have only strengthened with the passage of time. Movies of a certain vintage, with 1939 being the rarest cultural touchstone among them, have maintained an unusual resolve to transcend the era in which they were created, galvanized as permanent treasures in the cinema firmament. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is among these – a classic in the truest sense; the word ‘classic’ so tiresomely bandied about these days that to even afford it herein seems to grossly bastardize admiration for William Dieterle’s inspired direction.
One simply could not have asked for a more faultless incarnation of Victor Hugo’s everlasting chef-d'oeuvre. William Dieterle, who had begun his career in Germany before moving to Hollywood in 1930; then, embarking upon an uneven string of hits and misses until the spank of unwarranted McCarthyism all but blacklisted him from the industry, could take immense pride in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After RKO’s fiscal implosion, the picture all but vanished from public viewing for many years. Yet, its reputation endured. Co-star Maureen O’Hara has recalled how she came to land the part of Esmeralda – in essence, Dieterle and the studio forced by Charles Laughton into considering a screen test. Laughton had already signed to play the lead. O’Hara’s original 7 year contract in Britain belonged to him. Alas, on her first day’s arrival, O’Hara misplaced her pass and was unable to gain entrance to the studio until producer, Pandro S. Berman, who just happened to be driving in, caught sight of her standing near the front gates and vouched for her.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame undeniably belongs to Charles Laughton, indelibly etched into our collective consciousness for his subtly and pathos. And yet, in retrospect, the picture also marks the dawning of a new star in Maureen O’Hara’s fiery gypsy girl. O’Hara is presently 95 years young and still very much with us; an indomitable spirit, ardent champion and goodwill ambassador of her Irish heritage. O’Hara defines ‘star quality’ as few surviving actress can. Upon her arrival in America, she defied the denizens of ole Hollywood endeavoring to have her big nose broken and her teeth ‘fixed’. She actually cracked a wrist while taking an angry whack at John Wayne over an off-set disagreement, channeling her rage into the famous storm scene from 1952’s The Quiet Man. In 1972, after appearing alongside Wayne in many a classic, O’Hara marched to Congress to demand they honor the dying Duke with a Congressional Medal, simply reading ‘John Wayne – American.’ In hindsight, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is as much O’Hara’s movie as it is Laughton’s; her personification of ‘youth and beauty’ the perfect counterbalance to his formidable, yet tender and gentle ‘beast’ creating the sort of artistic symbiosis impossible to adequately quantify in words, bottle up or market. One merely has to take a step back and appreciate it as is. In the final analysis, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a phenomenal achievement.
Rights issues and an exhaustive search for archival elements suitable for a restoration have kept Hunchback off the screen and away from home video for some years. Now, Warner Home Video debuts a refurbished Hunchback on Blu-ray. The results are impressive to say the least, though regrettably, not perfect. A lot – and I do mean, A LOT, of work has gone into sprucing up these tired old elements for this new hi-def release. Derived from original camera negatives (an absolute miracle to begin with) Hunchback exhibits a revitalized image with exceptional tonality in its gray scale. Prepare to be dazzled. Fine detail is bountifully represented as is film grain, looking exceptionally indigenous to its source. I was amazed at the glorious grizzle of the faux masonry adorning the cathedral sets; the mind-boggling recreations of 1800’s France with its turreted shops and cobblestoned squares glistening in the stifling noonday sunshine of Southern California. To think that none of the picture was actually shot in France boggles the mind, as the authenticity of Van Nest Polglase art direction belies its Tinsel Town craftsmanship.
Better still, close-ups exhibit richness unseen for decades; the subtle glint of tears caught in Laughton’s eyes (or rather, one eye, the other being a prosthetic), and strands of Maureen O’Hara’s hair gentle wavering in the breeze; textures in fabrics and foliage revealing the stark visual beauty, magnificently photographed by Joseph H. August. Best of all: virtually no age-related artifacts. What is minutely upsetting is the sporadic hint of edge enhancement, the occasional shimmering of fine details, and the very rare, but quite obvious, mis-registration of the image, that creates disturbing halos; also, an inexplicable residual softness creeping in during the trial scene. It should be pointed out because so much of Hunchback is virtually free of these digital anomalies, when they do occur they draw even more undue attention than normal. Hunchback’s audio is DTS 1.0 mono and superbly rendered with a flawless resonance throughout. Extras are a tad disappointing. No audio commentary, alas, and only a vintage and severely truncated interview with Maureen O’Hara from the late 1990s; plus Warner’s usual affinity for tacking on vintage programming that has absolutely no tie-in to the actual feature; a pair of shorts and a very badly worn theatrical trailer. Bottom line: The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a bona fide classic. Warner’s new Blu-ray gives us its finest incarnation on home video yet. Not perfect – but exceptionally fine, nonetheless! Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)