The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

05/15/2019 06:23

Film: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Year: 1939

Director: William Dieterle

Writer: Sonya Levien

Starring: Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and Cedric Hardwicke



This was a film I was turned on to when I saw the original film that starred Lon Chaney. I was interested in seeing the other adaptations as well after I saw that one. This one is quite interesting as it came out during the era of Universal Horror films, but this was made by RKO. The synopsis is in 15th Century France, a gypsy girl is framed for murder by the infatuated Chief Justice, and only the deformed bellringer of Notre Dame Cathedral can save her.

We start off with lines of information about France coming out of the dark ages. They have a good ruler, King Louis XI (Harry Davenport), who is guiding them. We end up seeing him in a room where there is a printing press. Louis loves the idea of this and that it will help the citizens of Paris. With him though is Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke). He is a hardened man who is very religious. He thinks the printing press is the devil’s work. Louis then makes some statements about the churches and how they grand they are.

The bells at Notre Dame then start to ring, done by Quasimodo (Charles Laughton). He has a deformed face and a hunched back. The film introduces that Quasimodo looks up to Frollo as well as the Archdeacon (Walter Hampden). It should also be pointed out; these latter two also converse a lot.

Paris at this time has a ban on allowing gypsies to enter the city. Part of this is, because they steal and the other is that there isn’t enough food for them all. Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) sneaks into the city when her family is blocked at the gate. There is a festival going on and she performs to make money. During this, Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) is an enlightened guy who is trying to spread his word. There is a contest to crown the king of fools, which is supposed to go to the ugliest person. Quasimodo ends up winning, but all the fun ends with Frollo, who scolds him.

Esmeralda is asked for her permit and she flees to Notre Dame. She is given sanctuary and has a run in with Frollo. He is actually smitten when talking to her and she pleads to the king who is also there. Those are not the only two men entranced with her. Gringoire and a man in the city watch, Phoebus (Alan Marshal). When a murder occurs with a man Esmeralda is with, she is then accused of that. Being a gypsy, she doesn’t have much of a chance with the sentence of death looming over her head.

Now to start this off, I will admit that I never watched the cartoon growing up, so I’m not all that familiar with the story that Victor Hugo wrote a long time ago. This is only my second time seeing the story play out, with the viewing of the original film some time ago. There was something that really struck me about this film and that was the enlightenment of King Louis XI and some of the things he is pushing for. It really makes the film progressive. He wants the citizens of Paris to be able to read. He wants them to become more intelligent. He wants to separate church and state as he seems to be a believer in science. I also really liked Gringoire and the things he is stating.

This moves to me to the next aspect, which is the villain Frollo. He embodies what I hate about religious individuals. He is the chief justice, he knows that Esmeralda didn’t kill the person, but he claims the reason that the murder happened was, because she is a witch and used magic. It isn’t her fault that she is attractive. She is also quite simple and flirted with him. Since he can’t have her, he is out to ruin her life. It is crazy this film is from 1939 and is giving us a good look at toxic masculinity. This is also a sign of a broken judicial system as it is stacking the deck against the accused and Frollo is able to do whatever he wants.

Something I felt bad about is Quasimodo. He is born deformed and he is pretty much exiled. Those in the church are nice to him, but he is treated like a monster. It is really sad and what makes it even worse, I don’t think the world we live in as that much better. I do think he could have a somewhat normal life, but there are definitely going to be people who mock him still. How this film plays out and the things that he does is good. It is a bit too cheery at the end, but that is more a sign of the era.

Going from there would be to the pacing of the film. I do think that it is a bit slow. There’s just a lot of information to convey. The problem here is that I actually debated classifying this one as a horror film because of it. I ultimately decided from the fear of religion, from a corrupt justice system and from the events that happen at the end of the film there is enough horror aspects. It is also classified on the Internet Movie Database as horror as well as the encyclopedia I’m working from. I thought the climax was really good and it is funny, I’ve seen this scene used in comedies and it is interesting to see it where it actually fits into the context of the film.

One of the strongest parts of the film though would be the acting. Laughton I thought was great as Quasimodo. I had to look up if I saw him in anything else and I had, the name also looked familiar. It is interesting as his character is deaf from ringing the bells, but it is something he loves. I do think he plays the character well in that he is socially awkward due to his appearance, but he has a good heart. Hardwicke is such a great villain here. The corruption and using of religion to base the horrible decisions he made. I thought he comes off haughty, which really works. Thomas Mitchell plays Clopin, the king of the beggers. He was kind of funny and I liked him. O’Hara did well as Esmeralda. She really isn’t given much to work with the character, but she does come off as naïve and quite stunning. I really liked O’Brien and Davenport. The former because of his progressive character and Davenport for being able to see what is best for his people in the future while still seeing that religion is important. The rest of the cast rounded out the film for what was needed.

To the effects of the film, there weren’t really a lot used and that is mostly due to the era it was made. There were some things in showing Quasimodo as he is climbing along things. I could tell they weren’t filmed the way we are seeing it, as it would be dangerous. That didn’t create an issue for me. I thought the make-up on Laughton looked really good though. The film is show very well as well.

Now with that said, this film isn’t going to be for everyone. It came around in the era of the Universal Classics, but this one came from RKO. The story isn’t original, but I do like their take on it. It is actually quite progressive with some of the social issues we still face are explored in this film. It is kind of sad to think that even after 80 years, we haven’t moved past some things. I think the acting for the film was good. It runs a bit long, but it still does build tension. There aren’t a lot in the way of effects, but the era it was made, they didn’t really use many to begin with. The soundtrack of the film really didn’t stand out to me either. Overall I thought this was a good film and would recommend it if you like the tale as well as enjoy films from the era.


My Rating: 8 out of 10