After spending some time in the Belle Époque all week, I thought it only appropriate to revisit a work directly inspired by that era, or to be more precise, a work that led directly into that era. (The novel was published in 1831, urging France to preserve a cornerstone of its very identity.) 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was Universal Studios’ crown jewel that year and its highest grossing film of the silent era. It elevated Lon Chaney to full star status, it set the standard for Universal’s horror films, and it introduced me to this wonderful story at an impressionable age.
I previously reviewed Victor Hugo’s original novel. It is so very important to separate out the differences between it and the movie created from it. Where the book is a call to arms to preserve the cathedral of Notre Dame, with the story of Quasimodo woven in to become a thinly-veiled embodiment of the cathedral itself, the film sifts out the tragedy of Quasimodo’s story and elevates it to the highest drama capable of being produced in the silent era.
It’s said that Lon Chaney was so incredibly keen to do this production that he had bought the rights and considered making a version of it overseas before Universal brought him on board. Already an established character actor at that time, he was, of course, Universal’s first choice for the role of Quasimodo. After all, who else but “The Man of a Thousand Faces” could pull off the grotesque makeup effects needed to make this character come to life?
Following the success of The Miracle Man and The Penalty, Chaney announced that this, the assumed pinnacle of his career, would be his last “cripple role.” Of course we all know now he’d play The Phantom of the Opera two years later, for which I am eternally grateful, but it’s hard to argue with his assumptions at the time. Nobody could have expected the success of Hunchback. But it worked so well, it kickstarted the idea of Universal’s Monsters. Why The Hunchback of Notre Dame is never considered in the lineup is beyond me. They always start with Dracula, acknowledging Phantom as the forefather of their core monsters. Granted, Hunchback isn’t a true horror movie, but it’s hard to argue that even Karloff didn’t look this scary in any of his roles. But then, none of Karloff’s roles were even half this active either. Chaney put everything he had into this performance, inside and out. He owned this role like he was born to play it. I think he was.
And it’s not like Universal cut corners on the production either. It took six weeks just to costume the 3,000 extras in this movie…
… and they lovingly recreated the Notre Dame herself and the square around her, just as they would the Paris Opera two years later.
The next time the cathedral would be given this kind of attention would be for Disney’s 1996 animated feature, where the original cathedral was scanned and digitally recreated down the smallest details.
For 1923, however, computer animation clearly wasn’t an option, so when you see Quasimodo swinging on the bells or shimmying across the cathedral facade, you can bet your bottom dollar Lon Chaney was doing exactly that… on sets that were nowhere near as sturdy as the real deal. Ah, the things an artist will endure for the sake of his art.
Just yesterday, I went through Sarah Bernhardt’s The Art of the Theatre, published in 1923 just months after her death. Being released the same year as this film, I find it interesting to compare what she had to say about performance artistry and the expectations of beauty a leading actor would have to live up to in order to be successful. She’s not wrong in anything she said by any stretch. Indeed, everything she has to say about poise, grace, proportion, beauty, and everything else can be reflected in Patsy Ruth Miller’s Esmeralda and Norman Kerry’s Phoebus. These are the stage qualities that made film stars who they were more often than not.
But I don’t think she could have anticipated the rise of the horror movie or an actor with the transcendent versatility of Lon Chaney. I would love to be able to get her thoughts on something like this with the retrospect we have today. What would she have to say about Chaney, or those like Lugosi or Karloff who followed in short order? None of these guys were one-trick ponies, after all.
At its heart, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a love story as malformed as Quasimodo himself. That’s how it was pitched, that’s how it was written, and that’s how it’s performed at every stage. That makes the tragedy that much more poignant and heart-breaking. Right from the moment Quasimodo lays eyes on Esmeralda, his destiny was chiseled in the very stones of the cathedral.
Try to imagine yourself as Quasimodo. You’re malformed, shunned by society, living alone in the bell tower of the mighty cathedral as something part rumor and part urban legend. You’re half-blind. You’re deaf, the giant bells being the only things you can hear, and largely the only happiness you’ve ever known in your otherwise lonely existence. And then you come face to face with the most beautiful creature you’ve ever seen in your life. When you’re arrested for kidnapping, a crime perpetrated by your master, and publicly whipped for an hour, it is she who comes to your aid when no one else will, offering water to quench your wretched thirst.
This is just the centerpiece of the drama. The supporting stories with the Court of Miracles and Phoebus’ pursuit of Esmeralda as merely the next conquest ratchet things up another notch or two. Given the verisimilitude on display at all turns, it’s really difficult not to be moved by performances here. Seeing this movie made me want to read the novel at an age when I was too young to fully appreciate it. Imagine my surprise to learn the novel was so much more than what the film presented, so similar and so very different. Over time, I’ve gained a far better appreciation for both, and personally, I’d recommend them both for entirely different reasons. I also think they lend themselves to one another in perfect compliment, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
That’s what Project: Monster is all about, after all, exploring the legacies of these great stories and how they evolved through the ages. Hunchback is one of those tales that seems fixed in amber somehow. No matter how many times they retell it, no matter how they tweak it or outright change it, it still comes back to the heart of the story to make it work. Chaney’s is the performance that sets the standard in all cases. I defy anyone not to be moved by this masterpiece.