Wallace Worsley, 1923
Starring: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Nigel de Brulier
Though it is a historical melodrama and not a horror film, the importance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on subsequent Universal horror movies makes it a necessary inclusion in any discussion of Universal horror. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, though with some significant changes, Hunchback relates the 15th century tale of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, two outcasts in the city of Paris. Quasimodo lives in the Notre Dame Cathedral and works as the bell-ringer. He is forced to avoid human society because he is hideously deformed, hunchbacked, and partially deaf and blind, but he serves Jehan Frollo, the archdeacon’s secretly evil brother.
Jehan compels Quasimodo to kidnap Esmeralda, the beautiful adopted daughter of Clopin, king of the beggars and gypsies in Paris. She is rescued by Phoebus, Captain of the guard, who happens to be passing by. Phoebus is attracted to Esmeralda and intends to get her into bed, but they fall in love, despite the fact that Phoebus is engaged to Fleur de Lys, one of the loveliest and wealthiest young women in Paris. Meanwhile, Quasimodo is whipped in the public square for the attempted kidnapping. Esmeralda feels sorry for him and brings him some water.
Phoebus brings Esmeralda to a ball being held in his honor and he makes it known that he plans to marry her, to the horror of Jehan, Clopin, and Fleur de Lys. Clopin crashes the ball and Esmeralda leaves with him to prevent any violence. Jehan, who is desperate to have Esmeralda for himself, stabs Phoebus and blames it on Esmeralda, who falsely confessed while being tortured and is sentenced to death. Quasimodo, who has also fallen in love with her, rescues her and she takes sanctuary in the cathedral. The Notre Dame quickly becomes the site of massive violence, as Clopin leads his forces there to reclaim Esmeralda. Phoebus, who has made a surprise recovered from his wounds, leads the King’s guard there. High above the city, Quasimodo throws rocks, wood, and eventually molten lead at the mob below. Jehan attempts to take Esmeralda, but Quasimodo kills his master and throws him from the cathedral. Quasimodo dies watching Esmeralda and Phoebus’s passionate reunion.
The success of Hunchback allowed Universal to go on and make a number of horror films in the ‘20s and ‘30s, several of which starred Chaney. It was Universal’s most profitable silent film, amassing over $3 million. It also had some of the most elaborate sets ever created, including a reproduction of the Notre Dame Cathedral and other parts of medieval Paris. The set was almost 20 acres and included over 2,000 extras, and employed the most number of electricians ever to work on a film to allow for difficult nighttime shots. This was the most expensive film Chaney ever appeared in.
But regardless of cost or production values, Lon Chaney is the real reason to watch this film, even if you don’t particular like historical melodramas or find it difficult to pay attention during silent movies, as I do. There is something about Chaney that transports you away from distraction. His performance here, as in nearly every other film he starred in, is utterly absorbing. With the aid of roughly 40 lbs of make up designed by Chaney himself, he becomes Quasimodo, essentially a deformed, potentially violent lapdog ready to bow to whoever wins his loyalty. There is something of Quasimodo’s character that would reappear in Chaney’s best, most famous characters. He is mostly unlikable - he has no true concept of genuine human relationships or love - but he is also wholly sympathetic. Our hearts break when Esmerelda does not return his love, but, like her, we are repulsed during the violent conclusion when he rains stones and boiling led down on the rioting crowd. There is no place for him in the world and his tragic death is the only logical conclusion to the film.
Hunchback was really Chaney’s baby - he had the idea to do a film adaptation but it did not get greenlighted until producer Irving Thalberg took interest - and it skyrocketed him to fame. Universal finally took him seriously, giving him starring roles in a number of films after this, as did MGM, who soon signed him to an exclusive contract. He made over 150 films before his early death due to lung cancer. He remains probably the greatest non-comic actor of the silent film period (I had to leave some room for Buster Keaton).
Though Hunchback is a melodrama and not a horror film, there is certainly plenty of violence (though much of it takes place off screen or is implied in accordance with other films of the period). Quasimodo is whipped and beaten and eventually killed. Esmeralda, the focus of much of the film’s violence, is tortured and nearly kidnapped and raped. Others are stabbed and killed. The most horrifying thing about the film is the swirling, claustrophobic mob sequence, where Quasimodo throws stones and soon molten lead down on people, maiming, disfiguring, and killing many. In addition to the violence, Chaney's elaborate, grotesque make up set the stage for numerous horror films, including his follow up with Universal, The Phantom of the Opera.
Hunchback is not a perfect film. The 100-minute running time is arduous at points. Wallace Worsley is not the most competent or imaginative director and relies mainly on static long shots. There are a fair number of boring moments where the plot jumps around and characters we don’t really know are included in the story line. The film definitely suffers any time Chaney is not on screen. Patsy Ruth Miller’s Esmeralda has some captivating moments, though it is hard to sympathize with a character who attracts so much death and destruction.
I think I have to recommend Hunchback due to its importance in film history and its undeniable contributions to the development of American horror cinema. If you’re expecting something like Dracula or Frankenstein, you are going to be disappointed, but Chaney’s performance is solid enough to captivate even though most attention-deficit viewers. The stunning sets and the dizzying shots of crowds regularly interspersed through the film are also have to be seen to be believed. There are numerous adaptations of Hunchback, including the ill-advised animated version from Disney, but this is the only one worth watching.
All of the original cellulose nitrate prints of the film were degraded or destroyed, but Hunchback fortunately survives through a number of semi-damaged, 16mm prints distributed by Universal for private viewing. Though Hunchback has entered the public domain, the best version available on DVD is Image’s Ultimate Edition. The restored print will probably look lousy to viewers seeing it for the first time, but this is likely as good as it will ever look and far outshines the versions available for free online. There are a number of special features, including some great commentary tracks. If you don’t want to spring for the Image disc, watch the film on Archive.org or Youtube. Learn more about Chaney here or visit Silent Era’s great page about all available editions of the film.