February 26 is the birthday of the lion of French letters, Victor Hugo (1802-1885). If pressed, I might name Hugo as my favorite novelist, though like most Americans I base that on a familiarity with only a small portion of his work, and in translation, at that: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831), Les Misérables (1862), and The Man Who Laughs (1869). The first two, in particular, are less like books than lived experiences that one carries around in one’s head in perpetuity. Like many novelists of the 18th and 19th century, Hugo had started out writing plays for the theatre, and he brings with him a knack for making characters LIVE. Influenced deeply by Shakespeare, his works for the stage include Cromwell (1827) and Hernani (1830) and he also wrote works of theatre criticism and theory such as Shakespeare (1864) and Théâtre en liberté (1886, posthumous).
The extraordinary moral balance one encounters in his work I think stems from his personal evolution. One of the founders of Romanticism, Hugo was initially a Royalist and devout Catholic, but liberalized over time, until he became a republican, and a rationalist/deist who dabbled in spiritualism. In 1851 he exiled himself from France, then under its third Napoleon, and lived in the Channel Islands, the setting of his novel Toilers of the Sea (1866), which has been adapted for the screen at least a half dozen times, most of them silent. There naturally classic movie versions of The Man Who Laughs (which I wrote about here) and Les Misérables, which I’ll undoubtedly treat of some time. But today I thought I’d focus on what’s undoubtedly his most adapted work, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And very good timing. I was thinking about it only yesterday while writing about Carnival, as a memorable section of Hunchback takes place during the Feast of Fools, a very similar holiday in Medieval Europe which took place around New Year’s.
How perfect that first screen version was co-directed by Alice Guy-Blaché! The ten minute film is sadly now lost. But it set a precedent followed by a few subsequent versions of making the sexy Roma girl Esmerelda the prime selling point at the expense of the monster.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911)
The Darling of Paris (1917)
William Fox produced the first American version, with vamp Theda Bara as Esmerelda, the titular Darling, one of a long line of similar characters played by the actress. Like many of Bara’s films The Darling of Paris is lost.
Sybil Thorndike was the dancing girl in this 13 minute British version, now lost.
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.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
There is a kind of Hollywood magic to this version of the Victor Hugo classic, produced at the height of the studio era. The sets are absolutely gorgeous, among the largest ever created for a studio film. And the great Charles Laughton is terrifically moving as the hunchback, with a make-up that, while equally grotesque, allows him more range of expression than Lon Chaney’s in the original silent version. And what a cast! Cedric Hardwicke! Thomas Mitchell! Edmond O’Brien! Walter Hampden! George Zucco! And in her first Hollywood role, Maureen O’Hara as the Gypsy Girl Esmerelda! While I love this film (and even own a copy), I will say that I have not yet seen a screen version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame I have found as enjoyable as reading the book. It is one of my favorite novels.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1956)
This may have been the first version of the story I ever saw, though I certainly knew about the previous two American productions from books about horror movies. This was the first color version, an international co-production in which most of the continental cast’s lines were dubbed into English. Anthony Quinn is well cast as Quasimodo; the beautiful Gina Lollobrigida is Esmerelda. Most screen versions sweeten the ending by not having Esmerelda die. This version does not do that.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1982)
Anthony Hopkins is Quasimodo in this all-star Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie, with Lesley-Anne Down, Derek Jakobi, David Suchet, John Gielgud, and Nigel Hawthorne.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
I reviewed this Disney animated musical version in my ‘zine The Herald of Freedom when it came out (I may add to his post from that once I dig it out.) I recall liking it overall though I objected to the more formulaic elements, in particular Quasimodo’s gargoyle companions. Is he insane? Are we? There are other opportunities for comic relief in this story. The celebrity voices include Tom Hulce, Demi Moore, David Ogden Stiers, Kevin Kline, Jason Alexander and Mary Wickes.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1997)
Mandy Patinkin had originally been hired to voice Quasimodo in the Disney version but clashed with the producers over the portrayal (I’m guessing he wanted the voice to match Quasimodo’s appearance, as is the tradition. The Disney version doesn’t do that). At any rate, Patinkin then went on to play the role in this live-action tv movie version which also has Salma Hayek, Richard Harris, and Jim Dale — that’s a mighty prestigious cast. Actually a better one than the Disney version has. But word has it they’re now preparing a live action version of their own. It’s time for one. It’s been almost a quarter century!
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