The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

10/03/2019 06:28

Film: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Year: 1923

Director: Wallace Worsley

Writer: Perley Poore Sheehan

Starring: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller and Norman Kerry



This was a film that I checked out right after college. I was trying to watch the origins of the horror genre and this was on my list. I will admit, I didn’t necessarily care for it, but after this second viewing, I definitely have come up on my thoughts. I have to give props to star Lon Chaney in this opening before getting in this. The synopsis is in fifteenth century Paris, the brother of the archdeacon plots with the gypsy king to form a peasant revolt. Meanwhile, a freakish hunchback falls in love with the gypsy queen.

We start this in the capital city of Paris. There is a festival going on outside of the Notre Dame cathedral where the peasants are enjoying themselves. Their king, Louis XI (Tully Marshall), doesn’t like it as it can breed rebellion. Watching over all of this is Quasimodo (Lon Chaney). He is bitter as people are mean to him. He is deformed, partially blind as well as deaf. He is also the bell ringer for Notre Dame. Living in the church with him is Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier), the archdeacon. Also there is his brother Jehan (Brandon Hurst) who isn’t as good.

Watching over the festival is the beggar king, Clopin (Ernest Torrence). He is the adopted father of the beautiful gypsy, Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller). She comes out to earn money by dancing. This catches the eye of Quasimodo as well as the new head of the guards, Phoebus de Chateaupers (Norman Kerry) and Jehan. It should be pointed out that Phoebus is to marry a wealthy daughter, but is entranced by the beauty of Esmeralda.

Jehan comes up with the plan to use Quasimodo to kidnap Esmeralda and it is thwarted by Phoebus. This sparks a love interested between the two. Esmeralda does show mercy to Quasimodo though. Things take quite the turn though when Phoebus is attacked by someone while he’s with Esmeralda. She becomes the prime suspect and is sentenced to death. This might be exactly what Jehan needs to put his plans into motion.

The older that I get the more I can respect films like this. This was actually the first iteration of this story I had seen, but now revisiting this, I’ve seen a few different takes on it from different eras. I have to commend writer Victor Hugo for the story he has here. It is really one that is still socially relevant today.

The first one that I want to explore is classism. Louis XI is a king so whatever he says goes. The working class and the poor of this city are dangerously close to rebelling and they have a leader in Clopin to lead them. The problem becomes the guard is better armed and trained, but the people have the numbers. This is something that we don’t necessarily see today, but we are seeing the working class wanting more than what the wealthy are tossing down currently.

Something this one does different though than others is that Don Claudio and Jehan are separated. I don’t know if that is how it is in the novel or not. For me, I miss that we don’t really get the corrupt religious leader. Claudio is actually good here and he helps Esmeralda when she needs sanctuary. He also treats Quasimodo with respect, but I do think that this loses something that ones later on have.

There’s then the issue of toxic masculinity. I find this interesting that this film came out in 1923 and it is still an issue today. Phoebus isn’t as much a womanizer as he is in other iterations. It makes me wonder if there could be some kind of censorship to alter that here. Jehan on the other hand feels like she should love him for things that he does. He doesn’t really seem to think that she should be able to decide. With the time period this is set, women really didn’t have rights so I get it.

The last thing to cover would be Quasimodo. This version has Chaney playing him extremely bitter. I don’t blame him there, because due to his appearance he is treated horrible. It does make it interesting though that Esmeralda does at first, but then comes around, seeing the error of her ways. That little bit of kindness went a long away for someone who isn’t used to it.

I want to shift to the pacing here next. I do think this film is a bit long. What I think happened is that since this is so early in cinema, they really just took the book and made the movie. I think the remakes actually use creative ways of combining characters. My issue is that it is too long. The film comes in at about 100 minutes. I think trimming 10 minutes would actually make this flow much better. I still like the characters and there are some underlying themes that really work. The ending is good for what we get as well. I also have to shout out that the siege scene here is actually used in films that I saw growing up and that made me laugh.

Next to the acting, which I would have to say is good for the era. Chaney I’ve already touched on. I think he did his own make-up from what I remember reading about him. I think he does so well in these silent films where it is body language and what not. He really brings Quasimodo to life here. It is such a tragic and misunderstood character. Miller I thought was good looking for the time period and I like her portrayal. She really is another tragic character. Kerry was fine as Phoebus, as was Brulier, Hurst and Torrence in their respective roles. I think the rest of the cast rounded out the film for what was needed.

For the effects, I really can’t harp on a film this old. The technology really wasn’t there yet. I will say I wasn’t the biggest fan of look of Quasimodo. I think it’s the right eye that at first didn’t look good, but later it got better for me. Seeing the setting of the film looked as real as did the costumes. The camera is very stationary, but there are still some impressive shots for sure.

The last thing to cover would be the soundtrack. With movies this old, I don’t know if this is the intended score or not. I do think the music we get here works though. I’m actually more impressed though when the film used sound effects to match what is happening on screen. I thought that makes it feel like something that came out after here for sure.

Now with that said, this film is really a piece of history. I like what they did in bringing this novel to life, but I do think that they stuck to it a bit more than they should have. It is crazy to think there are some underlying themes here that are relevant even today and I dig that. The film is a bit long though and could be trimmed to run a bit tighter. The acting though is really good. There aren’t really a lot in the way of effects, but that is more of the time period if anything. I do like how it was shot though. The soundtrack I would like to know if it is what they originally intended, but regardless, it works especially with the sound effects thrown in. Overall I would say that this is above average for me and definitely worth a viewing if you can handle a silent film from the 1920’s.


My Rating: 7.5 out of 10