The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) | Charles Laughton gives Lon Chaney a run for his money as the eye-rolling human gargoyle

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

‘I’m not a man. I’m not a beast. I’m as shapeless as the man in the moon’
In 1482 Paris, as deformed hunchback Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is crowned during the city’s annual Feast of Fools celebration, gypsy girl Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) is on a quest to petition King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) to give her people freedom to enter the city. Making her way to Notre Dame cathedral, she encounters and falls for the vain Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal), while also capturing the eye of Quasimodo’s protector, Jehan Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), the King’s Chief Justice.

Sent to stay in the cathedral’s belfry while the King considers her request, Esmeralda is frightened by Quasimodo’s horrific appearance and runs away. Quasimodo then hunts her down on Frollo’s orders, but is captured by Phoebus. While witnessing this, street poet Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) stumbles into the Court of Miracles, a ghetto that’s home to a criminal underworld headed by Clopin (Thomas Mitchell), and is sentenced to hang, only for Esmeralda to save his life by marrying him.

The next day, Quasimodo is publicly flogged and, dying of thirst, is given some water by the remorseful Esmeralda as Frollo looks on. Bewitched by the gypsy girl, Frollo kills Phoebus in order that she be charged with the murder. Tortured and sentenced to hang, Esmeralda believes her days are numbered, only for the courageous Quasimodo to carry her off to the cathedral under the law of sanctuary. With time at the essence, Pierre petitions the King for a pardon using the new printing press as his tool, while Clopin rallies the outcasts of Paris to charge the cathedral and rescue Esmeralda. Mistakenly thinking the mob mean Esmeralda harm, Quasimodo takes drastic action to protect her…

Hunchback of Notre Dame 1939_1

‘We extract pleasure from horror’
For many Lon Chaney’s 1923 screen incarnation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains ‘the ultimate triumph of horror-spectacle’ (1), and he certainly earned his place in movie history with his tour de force acting and incredible make-up. But the definitive screen Quasimodo surely belongs to Charles Laughton: ‘a frog-hopping, tongue-lolling, eye-rolling gargoyle, yet human enough to break your heart’ (2) in this second screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel.

It’s a perfect description, and Laughton, who also made Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn with co-star Maureen O’Hara in 1939, successfully projects a great deal of humanity behind the sinister makeup, which he described as: ‘horrible, simply horrible. I looked vicious enough to make anyone scream. You have never seen anything as hideous’. But alongside Laughton’s performance, director William Dieterle’s epic has a lot going for it: incredible sets [and some of the costliest ever at the time], inventive camerawork [especially in the bustling Brueghel-like crowd scenes featuring some 3500 extras] and vibrant direction.

At its heart, the film is a romantic adventure, but there are some scenes which are as chilling as anything seen in Universal’s classic horrors of the day: like when Pierre encounters a group of gaunt, deformed beggars crawling out of the darkness; or when the crowd screams with blood lust as Quasimodo is flayed and turned on the pillory. But the most shocking is a scene in which Frollo fails to come to the aid of his ‘adopted son’ when he needs him most, making him the real monster in this tale.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The film’s biggest strength is Bruno Frank’s screenplay, which not only interweaves Hugo’s love story with court, state and church intrigue, but also underlines everything with his humanist ideals, which only makes this screen adaptation all the more interesting to watch out for its subtexts: Quasimodo suffers a trial that is equal to Christ’s Passion, while Esmeralda can be seen a Mary Magdalene/Saint Veronica-styled figure, especially in the crucial scene in which she brings water to Quasimodo on the pillory. Meanwhile, the plight of gypsies echoes the struggles of the Israelites in the Book of Exodus as well as those of the Jews under the Nazis in 1930s Germany.

The screenplay also makes a star out of the printing press. Described as a ‘horrifying miracle’ by Frollo, who embodies the dark ages, a time when the spirit of man was crushed by superstition and prejudice, the creation of the printing press (in 1450) is one of the most influential events in human history, ushering in a new age of enlightenment which gave voice to new ideas, especially Martin Luther’s protestant reforms and those humanist ideals that play out beneath the surface of this very Hollywood production.

But the final word goes to Laughton’s hunchback: ‘Why was I not made of stone, like thee?’ Thank god you aren’t Quasi, because you are bursting with human kindness. If only there were more like you in this world.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

The OEG UK DVD release includes a fine, though unrestored print of the film, and includes two video extras in which film critic James Olivier discusses both the film and the history of RKO pictures.

The real-life deformed actor Rondo Hatton appears in the King of Fools segment?

(1) The Movie Treasury of Horror Movies, Alan G Frank, 1974, Octopus
(2) A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Dennis Gifford, 1973, Hamlyn

About Peter Fuller

Peter Fuller is an award-winning print, radio and television journalist and producer, with over 30 years experience covering film and television, with a special interest in world cinema and popular culture. He is a leading expert on the life and career of Vincent Price and actively promotes the actor's legacy through publications, websites and special events.

Posted on April 19, 2014, in Classic, Horror, Must See, Must-See and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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