The Hunchback of Notre Dame

US (1939) Dir. William Dieterle

During the reign of King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) a band of gypsies arrive in Paris during the Feast of Fools, among which is the dancing girl Esmerelda (Maureen O’Hara), who catches the eye of both court judge Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke) and poor street poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien). Frollo orders deformed hunchback bell ringer Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) to capture Esmerelda but is arrested by Captain of the Guards Phoebus (Alan Marshal) who frees Esmerelda but has Quasimodo publicly flogged. During his hour of humiliation Esmerelda gives the thirsty Quasimodo some water earning a spot in his heart. Later at a public feast Phoebus is killed and Esmerelda is framed for his murder.

Victor Hugo’s classic novel has received the film treatment numerous times over the past century with the first being in 1905 and the most recent in 1999; this version from 1939 is arguably the most famous, along with Lon Chaney’s from 1923. With a budget of $1.8 million, which was pretty hefty for those days, the film’s profits were minimal but it would appear that not a penny was wasted as the impressive sets and epic historical feel will attest. Ultimately it proved popular with both the public and critics alike so RKO could happily call it a success.

Story wise it deviated quite a bit from Hugo’s original novel, delivering the now seemingly obligatory happy Hollywood ending rather than the tragic denouement of the book, as well as a few other key liberties being taken along the way – such as Frollo’s occupation from Archdeacon to judge or Phoebus being simply injured and not killed. Thankfully these changes don’t harm the story too much nor do they take away any of the power and pathos of this perennial “Beauty and the Beast” yarn with most of the integral elements of Hugo’s work very much present and correct. 

The central attraction for this film is the performance from Charles Laughton. Having already established himself as a versatile and powerhouse actor with many iconic roles in such films as The Sign of the Cross, Island of Lost Souls, The Private Life of Henry VIII, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Mutiny on the Bounty, Laughton brought every bit of that experience to this remarkable portrayal of the deaf, hideous hunchback Quasimodo. Whereas Chaney relied on the grotesque appearance for his interpretation of this unlikely protagonist, Laughton brought the humanity and heart to his. There is also plenty of physicality to the role and for a big man, Laughton moves with the agility and litheness of a flyweight gymnast.   

And with being the first screen actor to give the hunchback a voice, Laughton is tasked with creating a unique speech pattern for this deformed and deaf man, a task he meets with ease and intelligence, delivering a slightly strained, thick sounding, lispy, breathy but oddly rich voice that embodies all of his mental and physical deficiencies while retaining a significant amount of the human being behind the ugliness to remind us he is not a monster. This is now the considered definitive “Quasimodo” speech pattern, a lasting testament to this sublime performance.

While Quasimodo has only a few lines, the dialogue isn’t always necessary as, even with the prosthetic make up covering his right eye and the broken false teeth, Laughton manages to convey so much with a mere look, shrug, twist of the head or lick of the twisted lips. The tenderness and unspoken frisson in the scenes between Quasimodo and the delectable Esmerelda – wonderfully essayed by relative newcomer Maureen O’Hara, who would go onto greater things following this film – match any romantic drama in its breaking down of the barriers that exists purely down to the aesthetics of the participants. You genuinely feel that there is a slight chance the hunchback could score with his glamorous gypsy girl; he doesn’t but then you knew that already!

Aside from the freak show appeal of Quasimodo, Hugo’s story also explores racial discrimination (gypsies being persecuted for their skin colour and nomadic ways), the power of religion and the corruption of power. Perhaps not the most original of themes but for a story most people assume is a gothic horror due to the monstrous appearance of the titular bell ringer, there is a great depth to the tale which often goes unnoticed. Many might find this version a somewhat diluted version of Hugo’s work as Hollywood was very much working in safe mode at that time due to the restrictive Hayes Code, but the messages come across loud and clear enough, but a little more edge would have made this a more powerful experience.

Mini flaws aside, this version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a classic of its kind that offers a little more than the mainstream films of its time would offer. Laughton’s performance is more than an enticement for any true film buff to make a point of hunting this film down.