Universal Monsters: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Written by Perley Poore Sheehan
Directed by Wallace Worsley
Starring Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry
US Release Sept. 6, 1923
RT 117 min.
Home Video Flicker Alley (or Amazon Prime)
Classic Horrors rating = 7 (out of 10)

Poster - Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1923)_03

Warning: review contains plot spoilers.

It’s more challenging for me to write about silent movies than talkies.  I always have to explain what version I watched.  For example, IMDb lists four running times for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).  I’m not certain which one is offered for streaming on Amazon Prime; it seemed to fall somewhere in between 98 and 117 minutes.  Also, I have no idea if the particular soundtrack chosen accurately represents what original audiences would have heard when it opened in theaters.

This one includes the noise of the crowds and the bell ringing at the cathedral.  But while orchestral in nature, the music sometimes feels a little too modern for a film made in the 1920s.  And when the film itself jumps or stutters, the soundtrack continues seamlessly.  I suppose I prefer it that way; it would be too disrupting to have the music skipping, as well.  All of this is to say that it’s hard to imagine what watching a silent movie would have been like in its intended state.

I have to put aside many of the regular elements I critique and focus only on what I see on the screen.  So, while it’s more challenging, it’s also more helpful in examining the visual aspects: the sets, the acting, the costumes, the action, etc.  I enjoy it; it causes me to pay more attention and to perhaps get more out of the experience.  In this case, I find myself comparing The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Universal’s other big silent feature, The Phantom of the Opera, which came two years later.

This is for several reasons: both are early Universal Monster films, both star Lon Chaney, and The Phantom of the Opera is one of the few silent movies I’ve seen in recent years.  When comparing, I think The Phantom of the Opera is a better movie; however, I think Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame gives a better performance.  This is odd to me because I don’t particularly prefer his physical appearance, but I think he has more to do.

It’s difficult to call The Hunchback of Notre Dame a “horror” movie; however, it’s obvious to call it a “monster” movie.  Chaney’s Quasimodo looks horrific, sure.  But when he’s carrying away the lady, it’s to save and protect her, not kidnap and harm her.  At the same time, this doesn’t mean he’s sympathetic.  He chooses not to quietly accept the cruelty of the townspeople, but to taunt them in return, throwing cement blocks at them from high in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral.

The movie itself paints him as a monster from the very beginning:

Deaf – half blind – shut off from his fellowmen by his deformities the bells were the only voice of his groping soul.  To the townspeople he was an inhuman freak, a monstrous joke on nature – and for their jeers he gave them scorn and bitter hate.

This is not Disney’s hunchback.  In the spectacular finale, he even prepares molten lead to pour upon the angry mob below.  It doesn’t really matter that the mob isn’t necessarily after him.  They’ve come to free Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) from an even viler villain, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), who accuses her of murder when she won’t marry him.  So, while Quasimodo’s intentions are to protect her, his methods are terrible and extreme.  He doesn’t even think about what he’s doing.

There’s a lot of story in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based, of course, on Victor Hugo’s novel.  Written by the same many who wrote Les Miserables, a lot of it has to do with revolution… with common man rising up against their oppressors.  In this case it’s Clopin (Ernest Torrance) leading the artists and street people of the Court of Miracles against “his most Christian majesty,” King Louis XI (Tully Marshall).

In the middle is Phoebus de Chateaupers (Norman Kerry) a lothario who is engaged to be married, but dumps his fiancé for the lovely gypsy woman, Esmeralda.  He’s the man of her dreams, which is why she rejects Jehan and finds herself sentenced to hanging for an attack on Phoebus that Jehan really committed.  As Captain of the Guard, he straddles the line between the two classes in an era “ten years before Columbus discovered America.”

Earlier, Quasimodo is arrested for abducting Esmeralda, even though Jehan ordered him to do it.  However, I find it odd that he wasn’t later accused of stabbing Phoebus.  I guess it shows the true romantic jealousy of Jehan and why my description of him as an even viler villain is true.  This shifts the focus of the story, though, and at times I wonder why the movie is called The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  (Obviously, I have not read the book; this is probably an uneducated statement.)

When Quasimodo is strapped to the wheel for 20 lashes in the scene that everyone probably thinks about when discussing the movie, Chaney delivers a heartbreaking performance.  His facial expression and body movements are difficult to watch, even though we don’t actually see whip contact skin.  This terror is counteracted by the pure joy he feels when leaping onto the tower ropes to ring the cathedral bells.  Both are examples of the incomparable talent of Lon Chaney.

My last comment is that The Hunchback of Notre Dame includes more scenes of people talking that aren’t accompanied by a card to read their words than I remember in The Phantom of the Opera.  I’m not convinced that I prefer imagining what they’re saying.  Sometimes, with one-word exclamations, I could easily identify their words.  However, there are several longer “conversations” where I could not.  I was still able to follow the story, but who knows what detail might be missing.

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