The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Director: Wallace Worsley
It took Universal nearly a year to build the massive sets for The Hunchback of Notre Dame to mirror medieval Paris, most notably the Cathedral at Notre Dame built to scale. It was a far more lavish affair than was typical for Universal at the time (apparent producer Irving Thalberg took advantage of Carl Laemmle’s vacation to make the picture). The film was Universal’s “Super-Jewel” that effectively made Chaney a star, before he and Thalberg hopped elsewhere to complete their famous series of monster-horror films.
In the film, Lon Chaney plays Quasimodo, the odd ringer of the Cathedrals bells. The film mostly stays true to the novel’s description of Quasimodo as hideously hunched with one eye swollen shut. Apparently it took Chaney upwards of 5 hours to son his costume each day. In this way, the film mirrored Victor Hugo’s “cult of grandiosity” in the novel. It takes place, like the novel, in Paris in 1482 during the reign of the unjust King Louis XI. Quasimodo’s master is Jehan, the evil brother of the saintly priest of Notre Dame. He tells Quasimodo to kidnap a fair dancing gypsy girl, but she is rescued by Captain Phoebus who pursues a romance with her by convincing the aristocracy she is a princess of Egypt. However, Esmerelda eventually disowns the aristocracy and returns to her life in the underworld. Phoebus is stabbed in the back by Jehan but Esmerelda is wrongly blamed until Quasimodo rescues her from gallows. He hides her in the Cathedral at Notre Dame. Jehan and the mob storm the Cathedral and Jehan tries to take Esmerelda, but Quasimodo throws his former master from the top of the Cathedral to his death. In the fight Jehan fatally stabs Quasimodo. Esmerelda finds Quasimodo as he rings the bell, his own death knell. The film closes with scenes of the bells ringing.
The film presents a mix of gothic horror at the sight of Quasimodo, as well as pity for the underclass of medieval Paris. The sets are extraordinary and Lon Chaney “The Man of a Thousand Faces” delivers a terrific performance, much like his performance in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera.