THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. (1923) BASED ON THE NOVEL BY VICTOR HUGO. DIRECTED BY WALLACE WORSLEY. PRODUCED BY CARL LAEMMLE.
STARRING LON CHANEY, PATSY RUTH MILLER AND NORMAN KERRY.
REVIEW BY SANDRA HARRIS. ©
‘Swift run the sands of life, except in the hour of pain.’
Lon Chaney’s performance in this film is positively staggeringly good. He throws himself into it to the extent that he doesn’t mind at all that his creation is repugnant to lay eyes on. That’s a good thing, as far as he’s concerned, and it’s damned realistic too.
He doesn’t mind his character looking hideous and he doesn’t mind enduring a bit of physical suffering to achieve the right look. I think he thought that the suffering was a good thing too, lol. If you suffered for your art, you were obviously getting it right. And he got it so right with his Hunchback.
The Hunchback is a tragic figure, certainly unappealing to look upon but never comic, even if he does start the movie being crowned the King of the Fools during the festival of the same name. We’re in Paris, France ‘ten years before Christopher Columbus discovered America,’ so I make that 1472 by my watch.
The Middle Ages were so unsanitary with their rats, their plagues and their open sewers with filthy sewerage flowing down the streets that it’s a wonder anyone ever lived through them at all. Downright disgusting, they were.
Louis the Eleventh was the King of France during this era and you can bet your bottom dollar that he didn’t have to walk through sewerage on his way to buy a carton of milk and a packet of fags. One law for the rich and another for the poor, that’s how it was back then.
There were dire mutterings behind the scene amongst the lower classes though, and talk of uprisings and of overthrowing the King and distributing the wealth a little more evenly. I’m a little sketchy on my French history so I don’t know what happened in France between 1472 and the French Revolution of 1789 (‘Off with their heads!’ and suchlike) but the peasants were frequently revolting anyway, and you couldn’t really blame them as conditions for the poor were so appalling.
Rickets, ticks in the straw, the plague every five bloody minutes, boils and sores, infestations of this or that, no proper toilet or washing facilities, absolutely no Internet access, etc., etc. I couldn’t be doing with any of that type of thing. Give me modern times any day.
Lon Chaney’s character is Quasimodo the Hunchback, an orphaned, disfigured pauper brought up by the Church within the confines of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, the other star of the film. Whaddya mean you don’t remember Quasimodo? Surely his face at least rings a bell? Ba-dum-tish, lol. Bad joke. Forgive me.
He’s the bell-ringer at the Cathedral, which job has rendered him half-deaf if not wholly deaf after years of enduring the tremendous noise at close range. He loves the bells though, and at one point we see him expressing his ‘wild joy’ at something that’s happened by ringing the bejeesus out of those bells till the whole city is quivering from the reverberations.
Quasimodo is ordered by the Archdeacon’s lecherous and distinctly unholy brother Jehan to kidnap Esmeralda, the beautiful Gypsy girl who can be seen dancing and twirling like a sexy dervish in the streets during the festival. The kidnapping goes awry and Quasimodo is sentenced to a terrible public lashing, ‘not by any means the first time a servant was punished in place of its master.’
The poor Hunchback falls hopelessly in love with Esmeralda when she is the only person to take pity on him after this whipping and bring him a drink to quench his awful thirst. But Esmeralda is head-over-heels in love with Phoebus de Chateaupers, a ringleted and twirly-moustachioed popinjay who goes by the title of the Captain of the Guards.
The wicked Jehan stabs Phoebus while he- Phoebus- is engaged in embracing the lovesick Esmeralda, then he legs it and lets Esmeralda take the blame. Poor Esmeralda is ‘put to the question’ by the men of the Court, by which of course I mean she was tortured by these master torturers until she ‘confessed’ to the crime she didn’t commit, that of stabbing her lover Phoebus. These were the times of the Inquisition and witch-burnings and people being accused of sorcery if they were found to be able to add two plus two together and get four. That’s right, those were the bad old days.
On foot of her forced ‘confession,’ Esmeralda is sentenced to be hanged. On her way to the gallows, she is seen by Quasimodo, who is horrified by the implications of what he’s observed. His beautiful kind-hearted angel Esmeralda, sentenced to death? He kidnaps her away from the Guards and hops it with her into the Church. Methinks it’s time for a little Sanctuary, lol.
Can a gypsy girl really receive justice when she’s only a poor lowborn female while her accusers are all male and more powerful than she? And on whom will she bestow her love, the dashing nincompoop Phoebus or her rescuer Quasimodo who, alas, is no more pleasing to look on than last night’s curry leftovers after the dog’s been at ’em…? Whatever she does, someone’s bound to get hurt.
There’s also the intriguing mystery of Esmeralda’s parentage. Who is the girl’s mother, and is there a chance of a reunion between mother and daughter before one of them dies? Esmeralda has never been more alone in the world than she is now. She could use some good news.
The Court of Miracles, so-called because ‘here the blind can see and the lame walk,’ is a very interesting place too. Here lives Esmeralda’s ‘adopted’ father, Clopin, the King of Thieves, with the other downtrodden peasants of Paris, and here it is also that a word from Esmeralda saves Gringoire the poet, a minor character, from being hanged for wandering into the wrong part of town. Will Clopin rally his own troops when he hears of Esmeralda’s intended fate? He jolly well ought to, anyway.
The siege of the Cathedral is the most exciting bit. Look at the way Quasimodo leaps in glee and triumph when he thinks he’s gotten one over on those who are trying to force an entrance! He’s positively alive with mischief and impish malice, like the bad fairy at the party or something.
Lon Chaney, who also stars in the superb film adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in 1925, puts his heart and soul into the performance and into the mannerisms of the poor Hunchback.
There have been other Hunchbacks since his- the brilliant Charles Laughton, for example, and even Anthony Hopkins had a go at it- but his to me will always be the most poignant and the most moving. Lon Chaney, the Man With A Million Faces, has done it again, has pulled off another master-stroke with his bag of tricks. Hats off to you, Mr. Chaney. Hats off to you.
AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY OF SANDRA HARRIS.
Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens’ fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra’s books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:
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