Thursday, October 21, 2010

31 Days of Halloween: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

  Today, we're revisiting the Man of a Thousand Faces, with one of his greatest triumphs: 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame!

Deaf hunchback Quasimodo(Lon Chaney) lives in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, under the protection of benevolent archdeacon Dom Claude Frollo(Nigel De Brulier). Jehan Frollo(Brandon Hurst), the archdeacon's no-good brother, desires the gypsy dancer Esmeralda(Patsy Ruth Miller), adopted daughter of Chopin, the king of Paris' beggars(Ernest Torrence). Jehan convinces Quasimodo to kidnap her, and Quasimodo is captured in the act by Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers(Norman Kerry). Sentenced to a public lashing, Quasimodo is humiliated before the heckling crowd. When Esmeralda takes pity on him, bringing him water, he becomes infatuated with her. As the young woman is now desired by three men, each of them powerful in their own way, you can well imagine how events quickly escalate from here!

Hunchback, obviously, is Chaney's show from the get-go. This was the film that propelled Chaney, the popular character actor, into the stratosphere, and helped make him the most popular actor of the silent era. His elaborate makeup and uncanny pantomime skill create a performance that transcends the often stagy, overly-exaggerated performances of most actors of the silent era. Chaney's magnificent career is nearly unrivaled in film history, and this performance is one of its cornerstones.

Hunchback is nearly as well known for its incredible sets as for Chaney himself. This was a production on a massive scale, with a cast of thousands, and some of the photos I've included will give you a pretty good idea of the scope of this film.

Unfortunately, no 35mm print of Hunchback is known to exist. It was common practice at that time for studios to destroy the film once it had completed its theatrical run, and Hunchback was no exception. The existing copies come from a 16mm "show at home" version produced by Universal in the '20s and '30s, and duplicates of those prints produced by Blackhawk films in the '60s.

Despite numerous adaptations in the decades since its production, Chaney's version of Hunchback has yet to be equalled(although some, such as the Charles Laughton version, are quite good on their own merits). The Hunchback of Notre Dame may not be a horror film through and through-- at best, it's a historical epic with elements of horror-- but as one of the greatest classics of the silent era, and one of the finest showcases for the tremendous skill of Lon Chaney, it earns its spot here as we count down to Halloween.

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