The following article is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the May 16 My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film and TV Café. You can find a complete list of participating sites here.
It’s funny the things one remembers from childhood. Late one mid-summer night in 1969, 10-year-old me was half-asleep in bed when I heard my father come home from work, He turned on the TV in the living room downstairs and started flipping between the six or seven channels we got back then. After catching a few words from a Johnny Carson monologue, I suddenly heard a cacophony of church bells ringing, and I knew instantly what was on. I jumped out of bed, ran down the stairs, and–after saying “Hello” to him–told Dad to go back to whatever channel was showing my favorite monster movie: RKO’s 1939 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo.
Really, though, when you think about it, “monster movie” is kind of a misnomer when it comes to Hunchback. No doubt due to the title character’s grotesque appearance as well as some canny marketing by Universal Pictures (the studio behind 1923’s silent version with Lon Chaney), poor Quasimodo has over the years found himself lumped in with Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf Man and company on toys, plastic models, lunchboxes and other creature-themed tchotchkes. But, honestly, if “monstrous features” were all it took to make a horror film, we’d also have to include Cyrano de Bergerac, Mask and any picture starring Gerard Depardieu (sorry). No, the ’39 Hunchback of Notre Dame is many things–historical drama, unrequited love story, grand adventure, even an allegory for Europe on the eve of World War II–but it is certainly not just a “mere monster movie.”
Of the many big- and small-screen takes on Victor Hugo’s story, RKO’s rendition is probably the best known and most highly regarded (sorry, Disney). MGM production head Irving Thalberg had contemplated a sound version in the early ’30s, and it’s said that RKO was ready to consider going ahead with Lon Chaney, Jr. reprising the role his late father had played a decade earlier before the studio signed the British-born Laughton. With a $1.8 million budget, it was the company’s second-most expensive film to date, topped only by that same year’s Gunga Din, and featured a lavish reproduction of the Notre Dame cathedral’s main entrance.
If you’re not familiar with the original novel…don’t worry. Producer Pando Berman and director William Dieterle wisely jettisoned some of that tome’s many subplots, changed the motivations of a couple of major characters, and then stuck more or less to the outline of the 1923 Universal film (after paying that studio $135,000 for story rights). In 1480s Paris, Laughton’s deaf, deformed cathedral bell ringer is the loyal “ward” of Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), the city’s stern chief justice and brother of Notre Dame’s kindly archdeacon (Walter Hampden). Even as he’s persecuting the bands of Gypsies trying to enter Paris, Frollo becomes obsessed with Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara, in her first U.S. feature), a beautiful Gypsy dancer, and tries unsuccessfully to have Quasimodo abduct her. Caught and sentenced to a public whipping on the pillory, Quasimodo’s cry for a drink of water is answered by a forgiving Esmeralda.
After learning that she’s fallen for Phoebus (Alan Marshal), the handsome soldier who rescued her from being carried off by Quasimodo, Frollo kills his “rival” and frames the Gypsy girl for the murder. Tortured into confessing and condemned by Frollo to hang, Esmeralda is saved from the gallows by the smitten hunchback, who swoops in on a rope, carries her into the “Sanctuary!” of Notre Dame, and promises to protect her. As Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien, making his Hollywood debut as well), a young poet also in love with Esmeralda, attempts to win her freedom by appealing directly to King Louis XI (Harry Davenport), an army of sympathetic street beggars and pickpockets led by “king of thieves” Clopin (Thomas Mitchell) tries to storm the church, only to be met with an onslaught of rocks, bulding stones and molten lead from high above, courtesy of Quasimodo…who doesn’t know that Frollo has entered the cathedral seeking to finish his fatal plot. Can the hunchback stop the man who’s been like a father to him? Will Esmeralda be freed? And who will she choose, the boyishly handsome poet and the deformed bell-ringer (okay, some questions you can answer without seeing the film!)?
Is it tacky to say that much of this movie’s success rests squarely on Charles Laughton’s shoulders? Already an Academy Award-winner for 1933’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, the actor’s infamous attention to detail is obvious; He and movie makeup whiz Perc Westmore–whom Laughton convinced RKO to hire for the project–had contentious debates over Quasimodo’s appearance (like the 1923 Chaney film, no publicity shots of Laughton’s face were released before the film’s premiere). Also like his predecessor, Laughton insisted on wearing a cumbersome foam rubber hump, along with a lift in one shoe that would force him into a distinctive stance and walk.
None of that would matter, though, if he hadn’t been able to bring out the humanity beneath the character’s external ugliness. If Chaney’s impish, belligerent hunchback seemed at times like one of Notre Dame’s gargoyles suddenly sprung to life, Laughton’s–barely speaking more than a few words during the picture’s first half–is all too aware of his outcast status and appearance (“I’m not a man! I’m not a beast! I’m about as shapeless as the Man in the Moon!,” he exclaims). His pain is keenly felt in the post-rescue scenes where Quasimodo brings food to Esmeralda and says, “I’m going away, so that you don’t have to see my ugly face when you’re eating,” and then later, doing his level best to hide his face, tries to declare his feelings to her.
It was Laughton who recommended to the studio that an Irish-born actress, with whom he had worked earlier in the year in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, be brought to Hollywood and cast as Esmeralda, and the 19-year Maureen O’Hara is absolutely luminous in the role. It’s very easy to see why most of the male cast is so taken with the exotic beauty (“Doesn’t she make your pulse beat faster?,” says King Louis to his elderly doctor, who replies “I’m a widower four times, Sire, but I could start all over again.”). Her character goes from flirtatious to soulful at the shake of a tambourine, and after her initial fright upon first seeing Quasimodo spying on her, she later grows to care for her misshapen savior.
Speaking of Esmeralda’s gallery of suitors, Cedric Hardwicke is a suitably cold-hearted, dour-faced (“Never trust a man with pinched nostrils and thin lips,” Clopin says of him) Frollo. The dogmatic and bigoted judge (originally the Archdeacon in Hugo’s book, but Hollywood didn’t want to have a lust-filled, murderous priest as an antagonist) wants to eradicate all Gypsies from France and feels no shame about sentencing the woman he claims to love to the gallows. Counterpointing Frollo’s xenophobic fervor is the youthful vision of poet and would-be playwright Gringoire. Edmond O’Brien, come west after working on the New York stage with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, is mostly stuck playing the hapless romantic here, but manages to stay sympathetic without getting too annoying.
If O’Brien isn’t necessarily well-served, it’s because he’s overwhelmed and out-acted in most of his scenes by Thomas Mitchell as Clopin, leader of the Paris underworld. A veteran of the Hundred Years’ War, Clopin managed to unite the poor of the city into a “beggar’s guild” nearly as powerful as the corrupt and well-to-do nobility (a plot line that probably had special resonance with Depression-era moviegoers). Amazingly, in 1939 Mitchell was also on the screen as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone with the Wind; as a cynical D.C. newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; alongside Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings; and as alcoholic “Doc” Boone–for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award– in John Ford’s Stagecoach. That’s some year to put on one’s resumé.
I’d also like to toss in a quick word about veteran character actor Harry Davenport’s portrayal of King Louis XI. While I confess I haven’t read much about him in history books, the monarch seen here is a kind-hearted old gent who is infatuated with progress and such newfangled ideas as the printing press, a sailor named Christopher Columbus, and–for health reasons–bathing more than once a year. He shows sympathy for the plight of Esmeralda’s people and, while watching her dance, utters a line–“Who care about her race? She’s pretty!”–that may have raised an eyebrow or two in 1939.
The themes of race (via the mistreatment of Gypsies) and of fanaticism leading to intolerance and injustice are evident throughout Bruno Frank and Sonya Levien’s screenplay and were most certainly influenced by the news reports coming out of Nazi Germany (where thousands of Romani people were put to death during the Holocaust) at the time. Looking back on events seven decades later adds a special resonance to these aspects of the film, but it also affected the production. In her 2004 autobiography ‘Tis Herself, Maureen O’Hara recalled being on the set on Septmeber 1st, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland and World War II broke out in Europe. With many cast and crew members from England and other European countries dreading the thought of their homelands at war, Charles Laughton–in costume–echoed a scene from a film he made four years earlier, Ruggles of Red Gap, and gave a moving recital of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to a rapt audience.
The war also had an economic impact on The Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well. Despite its large (for RKO) budget, it enjoyed a modest box office success in the U.S., but the outbreak of hostilities meant little if any distribution in Europe and Asia until many years later. What’s more, the picture had been chosen for exhibition at the inaugural Cannes Film Festival, but wound up being the only one shown before the remainder of the event was called off. And while we’re on the subject of awards, I’m pretty sure that, if this film had come out in any other year, it would have gotten more than its two Academy Award nominations (for music score and sound editing). But 1939 was, of course, the year of GWTW, Mr. Smith, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and about a dozen more cinematic classics, and thus Laughton’s masterful performance got bypassed.
I wasn’t aware of any of this as a 10-year-old in the summer of 1969, however. I was just waiting for two of my favorite movie scenes to play on TV. The first is when Esmeralda in about to be hanged in the courtyard of Notre Dame and Quasimodo, who was climbing down the facade and leaping from statue to statue, swings across from the church scaffolding like a 15th-century Tarzan and lifts her in his arms, as the crowd starts cheering and composer Alfred Newman’s “Hallelujah” blasts triumphantly…
…now, mind you, that’s the actual Maureen O’Hara, several stories above the crowd, being held up in the air by Charles Laughton’s stunt double. It’s certainly a darn good thing the guy had a firm grip on the starlet.
The second is the ending, which (again, like the 1923 Chaney film and most other screen translations) has little to do with what Victor Hugo wrote. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen the picture, so suffice it to say that Laughton’s final line–“Why was I not made of stone like thee?–brought a tear to my eye 40-plus years ago…and still does to this day.