The 1939 movie version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of RKO’s most lavish productions, and one of their biggest hits. It’s very much a Hollywood movie, which can be both a good thing and a bad thing.
Victor Hugo’s novel Notre Dame de Paris is not primarily about Quasimodo the hunchbacked bell-ringer of Notre Dame cathedral. The real central character is the gypsy girl Esmeralda. She arrives in 15th century Paris with a band of gypsies, at a time when gypsies were finding themselves one of the targets of a campaign against heresy.
On of the king’s chief counsellors, and one of the chief architects of the persecution of heretics, is the humourless Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke). He becomes obsessed with the beautiful Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara), but then just about every man who sees her becomes obsessed with her. Her other admirers include the feckless and idealistic poet Gringoire (an impossibly young Edmond O’Brien) and a handsome officer in the king’s guards, Phoebus. It’s Carnival, and the hideously deformed hunchback Quasimodo has just been crowned King of Fools.
Quasimodo had been rescued as a foundling by Frollo and placed in the are of Frollo’s brother, the archbishop of Paris. The hunchback lives in the cathedral. An unfortunate excursion ends in Quasimodo’s arrest and flogging, and Esmeralda takes pity on him and offers him water while he’s in the pillory. And Quasimodo has now become one of the gypsy girl’s admirers.
The rather complicated plot featuring murder, jealousy and lust sees Esmeralda falsely accused of a murder. There are also numerous sub-plots involving the first printing press in Paris and the kingdom of the beggars. It leads to a spectacular finale.
The film suffers from two of the biggest problems that afflicted Hollywood movies of this period - an excess of both sentimentality and earnestness. The earnestness is compounded by a rather clumsy attempt to make the story relevant to 20th century audiences by inserting some very anachronistic ideas about public opinion and the power of the press. There also seems to have been an intention to make the movie a kind of parable of the struggle between totalitarianism and democracy, which was understandable in 1939 but seems out of place in medieval France.
On the plus side there’s Charles Laughton’s bravura turn as Quasimodo, some extraordinary makeup effects, and some impressive and unquestionably magnificent visual set-pieces.
I’ve always regarded Maureen O’Hara as being a bit insipid and it took me quite a while to warm to her performance. She did eventually win me over, at least partially. Harry Davenport is plays King Louis XI as a kindly but dotty elderly uncle figure, which is alternately charming and annoying. Cedric Hardwicke is sadly rather colourless as Frollo.
William Dieterle’s direction is not particularly inspired, but it’s certainly competent.
It’s been a long while since I saw the 1923 version with Lon Chaney. I have rather fonder memories of that version but I really need to revisit the silent version to make a fair comparison. It’s possible that my liking for the silent version prejudiced me a little against this one.
To enjoy this movie you have to relax and accept its Hollywoodness. If you can do that it’s a moderately entertaining tale of romance and adventure with a hint of horror. Not a favourite of mine though.