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It is a rather strange thing that Victor Hugo’s Hunchback joined the pantheon of the Universal Monsters. Quasimodo has a quite human physical abnormality. It doesn’t seem fair that just because someone isn’t a likely model for GQ that the person would become a model for Halloween costumes. But there he was, right along with the Mummy, the Wolfman, and Dracula in my set of Aurora Monster Models.
Perhaps part of this was Lon Chaney playing the role, noted for playing other “monsters” (such as the Phantom of the Opera, another very human but ugly character). One could call Victor Hugo’s novel a romance or a gothic tale or an adventure. But somehow, it’s listed in the genre of horror, and since the tale has long been in public domain (it was written in 1831), there have been many adaptations brought to the screen.
A French silent film made in 1911 was less than a half-hour long. Then came the famous 1923 silent version with Chaney, followed in 1939 by a version with Charles Laughton as the Hunchback. A Cinemascope color version with Anthony Quinn came out in 1956, but it’s little remembered and the same can be said for the 1982 made-for-TV version with Anthony Hopkins.
In 1986, independent Australian filmmakers made an animated version of the story and since then, only cartoon versions have been made. The big-budget animated version came from Disney in 1996, the same year three small companies made other animated versions of the story (again, the book is out of copyright). Since then, there has just been a Disney direct-to-video sequel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, which came out in 2002.
The basic story is the same in all of the versions. The beautiful gypsy Esmeralda is condemned as a witch by the evil archdeacon Frollo (who lusts after her). Quasimodo, the deaf, half-blind hunchback bell ringer of the Notre Dame Cathedral, falls in love with Esmeralda, hiding her in the cathedral’s tower.
But this is “Thrice Told Tales,” so we’ll just be looking at the three most famous versions of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the silent 1923 version, the Oscar-nominated 1939 version, and Disney’s 1996 animated film.
Universal Studios built elaborate sets to reconstruct the Notre Dame Cathedral for the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. (In all the versions of the story, the Cathedral is a character.) The silent film was able to convey the majesty of the structure, the Sanctuary. A title card reads, “A spiritual haven in a brutal age; a sanctuary where the persecuted could find protection, the enduring monument of a mighty faith.”
Lon Chaney’s make-up is a marvel as well. It is said that Chaney preferred for his make-up to be painful, so he could relate to a character in pain. His appearance is repulsive – but Chaney also draws great sympathy for the poor man.
It’s interesting how differently Frollo is presented in the films, with filmmakers of different times more or less comfortable with a member of the clergy as the villain of the story. A title card in the 1923 version makes it clear he is a clergyman, but Esmerelda points out that he has taken on wearing “worldly dress” rather than dressing as a priest. He does at one point in the film wear clerical garb, but that’s to get past prison guards. The filmmakers certainly seem to want to downplay Frollo’s position as a priest.
This version concludes with a mix of triumph and tragedy. Esmeralda is rescued in the end and goes off with her love, Captain Phoebus. Quasimodo comes to their aid, killing his master Follo but losing his own life in the battle.
The film was a great success in its day, though some critics found it a little too horrible. The reviewer for Variety called it a “two-hour nightmare.” Sadly, the film was not well preserved. All 35 mm prints were lost. Some 16 mm prints for home use survived, but it is believed fifteen minutes of footage has been forever lost. Still, this is among the select group of silent films that is widely remembered and celebrated.
The 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the film I dearly loved as a child. Charles Laughton plays Quasimodo this time, Maureen O’Hara plays Esmeralda, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke is Frollo.
1939 was, of course, an amazing year. Many would argue it’s the highlight of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The Oscar Best Picture nominees were Gone With the Wind, Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, and Wuthering Heights. Most any other year, surely The Hunchback of Notre Dame would have been a Best Picture nominee, but it was only nominated for Music and Sound.
Though originally Universal was to remake the film, they sold the project to MGM, who sold it to RKO. Lon Chaney Jr. fought for the role of Quasimodo, and Orson Welles was considered, but ultimately it went to Charles Laughton – who was brilliant. (For decades to come, impressionists would still be imitating his cry of “Sanctuary!”) And O’Hara is, per usual, radiant.
Again, it’s interesting to see how the filmmakers approached religion. Frollo is “Judge Jean,” a government official and not a priest (though his brother is, as is the case in the novel). Even the structure is not primarily religious, a magistrate in the film says, “Cathedrals like this one, a triumphant monument to the past…glorifying France.” The celebration of progress is a great theme in this version. The Cathedral is the glory of France’s past, but what comes of the printing press is thought to be the glory of France’s future.
But the Cathedral is, indeed, a sanctuary. It’s Esmeralda’s source of salvation. Also, it’s the one place Quasimodo is safe from the taunts and mockery of the crowd. It’s his fortress, the place he battles the crowds that pursue Esmeralda. (My favorite part of the film as a kid was when he poured molten lead on the crowd from the mouths of the gargoyles. Remember, I was the kid collecting monster models.)
The film ends a little differently than the silent version. Esmeralda goes off with her true love (Gringoire), and the hunchback does throw Frollo to his death – but Quasimodo lives. It’s almost sadder seeing him watch his true love leave without him. (He says to one of the gargoyles, “Why was I not made of stone, like thee?”)
In 1996, the story really seemed like a strange choice for a Disney animated film. Where are the cute forest animals? In their place, the gargoyles come to life; singing, dancing, and cracking wise. There isn’t exactly a Disney princess, but there is Esmeralda of the gypsies. (And yes, they do use “Gypsy” rather than “Roma.”) There are no children at the center of the story, and the story keeps the general outline of Hugo’s tale.
This film takes the firmest stance against religious hypocrisy. Though Frollo is again a government official rather than a priest, he sings of his lust for Esmeralda in religious terms in the song “Hellfire.” (You know, for the kids.)
The film manages a slightly happier ending, as one would expect from the Mouse Factory. Quasimodo doesn’t kill Frollo, the villain’s fall from the cathedral tower is accidental. Esmeralda still goes off with Phoebus, but with Quasimodo’s blessing. They encourage him to leave the cathedral, and when he does, the people of Paris hail him as a hero. (Allowing for the direct-to-video sequel mentioned before.)
It’s hard to imagine a new Hollywood version of the story. Sure, it would be great to bash the church and the idea of sanctuary has taken on new meaning and force. But one couldn’t use the word “Gypsy.” And would Esmeralda really need so much rescuing? Especially, by, you know, men? Just too many problematic elements in the story.
As for me, Laughton will always be my Quasimodo and O’Hara my Esmeralda. And the idea of the church as a sanctuary is a truth for the ages.Published in