Movie Review: Hunchback of Notre Dame

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Directed by William Dieterl
Starring Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, Maureen O’Hara, Edmond O’Brien, Alan Marshal, Walter Hampden, Harry Davenport

It’s amazing how a movie can change over the years. Or does it? As the saying goes, a movie never changes, but the viewer does. The more movies that we watch, the more we learn about films. And the more we learn, the more we learn to appreciate them. So watching something at an older age, compared to watching something younger, can result in quite a different of effect, and opinion. This film is proof of that theory.

I had seen this version of this classic tale years ago on TV. Yeah, it was okay, but it couldn’t compare to the great Lon Chaney’s version from 1925. I have always held Chaney and his version so high of a classic that even though I had seen the ’39 version before, I never bothered to re-watch it because I just didn’t remember it being that good. After discussing this with a friend who said I really should re-visit it, I did just that. Afterwards, I was simply in awe of Laughton’s performance. Since half of his face is covered with a rubber makeup mask, there is only part of his face that can really show any expression. Even under that mask, the emotion that Laughton emits from his one eye is more than some of today’s actors can come up with their whole face. It simply is heartbreakingly amazing to watch his performance.

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We all know this old story, and it pretty much is the same as the countless other versions that have been out there. Quasimodo lives in the bell tower of the Notre Dame cathedral. Cedric Hardwicke portrays the Chief Justice, Count Frollo, who is kind of like Quasimodo’s keeper. He sends Quasimodo to capture Esmeralda, a gypsy girl that he has fallen love with but who turned away from his affections. The hunchback is caught and charged with the attempted kidnapping. Frollo does nothing to stop the punishment that the poor hunchback gets. Which leads to one of the most touching sequences in this film. After his whipping, Quasimodo is left out in courtyard for an hour for display. When he cries out for water, Esmeralda has pity on the poor creature and brings him some water. The expression that Laughton exhibits, from his facial expressions, to the limited body movement he uses, can almost bring the viewer to tears. Why he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar is beyond me.

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But there are more here than just watching Laughton’s incredible performance. The other actors also do a great job with their performances, though it is hard to compare them with Laughton. Maureen O’Hara also stands out as the beautiful Esmeralda, and Cedric Hardwicke as the icy Frollo. The use of the shadows is very reminiscent of the German expressionism period. Not with the wacky set designs mind you, but the use of shadows hiding part of the screen and characters. Plus the set and production design is simply amazing. The fact that this whole movie was filmed on a back lot and was built, including the replica of the cathedral, is awe inspiring.

There is a lot of subtext here in the film, which comes from the original novel, when it comes to the lower class versus the upper class, but I really won’t get into that, since it deals more with the real world of politics. I’d rather look at it as a morality play on how people are treated throughout society. We have a lot of ‘hunchbacks’ out there, not just in their appearance, but also how they are treated. How they are thought of, based solely on their appearance and not their merit. We haven’t come that far, have we?

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This definitely a title that deserves the moniker of a classic. Sure, it might not be the same as watching Chaney on screen, but we can revel in the amazing performance that Laughton gives. He gives Quasimodo’s the characteristics most of us come to think of when we think of this character, one who is mentally challenged, unknowing of what is going on around him, but yet still understands more than we think.

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I will end this review with a quote from one of the characters from the movie. During the Festival of Fools, the crowds are looking for someone to crown the King of Fools. When one of the royal court makes a comment that only the lowest of society, or “mob” would get enjoyment out of this spectacle, the King points out that even most of the royal court is watching in fascination. And that “The ugly is very appealing to man. One shrinks from the ugly, yet want to look at it. There’s a devilish fascination in it. We extract pleasure from horror.”

Maybe that’s why we watch horror movies…

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