The Hunchback of Notre Dame


“Give us a kiss!”

Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the silent classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). The film, starring Lon Chaney in one of his tour de force roles, is often said to have launched Universal Studios’ cycle of legendary horror pictures. Technically it’s not a horror film, the story of Hugo’s epic novel is so much broader in scope than that, but our main take-away does wind up being Chaney’s horrific make-up and his stirring performance. The movie’s success prompted the studio to go on to make The Phantom of the Opera (1925), the first of their self-described horror films per se. And its “sympathy for the monster” theme would provide a template for another true horror film Frankenstein, a few years later.

As we say, the deformed hunchback is at the fore of our experience of the film…we impatiently await Chaney’s scenes. He is not just hunchbacked, but some sort of sub-human, ape-like mental defective, his hair a tangled ‘fro, his face covered in boils and lumps, and one dead eye. He seems almost like a demon. But at the same time, thanks to Chaney’s performance, we see his pain underneath it all and empathize with him. In one scene the make-up extends to a fake naked, hairy torso as he is whipped and we feel his agony. The sets are incredible, we get a real sense of the size of the cathedral. Chaney crawls all up and down it like an ape in the trees, swinging on and ringing his bell.

Unfortunately most of the film is taken up with boring plot-matter…satisfying enough to read in a novel, but frustrating in a silent movie. At the center is the beautiful gypsy girl Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller), who is loved not only by Quasimodo, but by a cruel priest, a revolutionary, a poet, and the noble, prissy-looking Phoebus, who finally gets the girl. And the exciting climax in the tower…in many ways, this remains the definitive cinematic version, including even Charles Laughton’s later remake. Only two months until Halloween!

To learn more about early film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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