Visages d’enfants (1923) Review

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Review

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Director: Wallace Worsley


The Hunchback of Notre Dame presents a mix of gothic horror as well as pity for the underclass of medieval Paris, particularly in the figure of the deformed character Quasimodo. The medieval set constructions for this film are extraordinary, it took Universal nearly a year to build the massive sets, most notably the Cathedral at Notre Dame which was actually constructed to scale. It was a far more lavish affair than was typical for Universal at the time (apparently producer Irving Thalberg took advantage of Carl Laemmle’s vacation to secretly make the picture). The film was Universal’s “Super-Jewel” that effectively made Lon Chaney a star, before he and Thalberg moved onward to complete their famous series of monster-horror films. Lon Chaney “The Man of a Thousand Faces” delivers a terrific performance, much like his performance in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera. I thought this was an all-around terrific film.

In the film, Lon Chaney plays Quasimodo, the odd ringer of the bells at Notre Dame Cathedral. 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.

Foolish Wives (1922) Review

Foolish Wives (1922) Director: Erich von Stroheim


I recently attempted to finish watching Foolish Wives (1922), and it is a monumental task, even for a silent film. It lasts nearly 2.5 hours long, and the plot is vague, slow, and wandering. Originally director Erich von Stroheim intended for the film to be 6-10 hours long! It tells the story of a man who dubs himself a Count in order to seduce and rob wealthy women. The plot unfolds like an erotic tragedy, and von Stroheim, himself, plays the Count. Indeed the Count seems to be von Stroheim’s own alter-ego, and this film is something of a personal vanity project for him. Thankfully, the studio drastically cut down this film’s run-time (a rare moment of praise from me for a studio doing such a thing).

Foolish Wives is, in some ways, a sinister and salacious film, but the sets are marvelous. It is certainly not von Stroheim’s best film but it is an important piece of cinematic history. I am glad I got through it, but I cannot in good faith recommend this film.

Erich von Stroheim tried to sell the movie as the first “million dollar movie” ever made, and the studio obliged, though exact costs are hazy. At the time, Erich von Stroheim was the top man at Carl Laemmle’s Universal. A former apprentice to D.W. Griffith, von Stroheim made two prior films (Blind Husbands in 1919 and The Devil’s Pass Key in 1920) but this film launched his odd persona into film-making –he was known as an intense “perfectionist.” Reviews tended to focus on the extravagant production costs, as well as the elaborate set constructed to represent the Monte Carlo, a huge coastal set which was destroyed at one point and had to be rebuilt. Much of the cast was apparently pumped full of caviar and champagne to accurately portray the lavish world of opulence. In truth, the true heights of von Stroheim’s directorial capacities would be exercised in his next directorial effort —Greed (1924). I will always remember von Stroheim best for his acting performance in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937). I tend to prefer his eccentric performances to his directing.

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (1920) Review

Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem: How He Came Into The World) (1920) Director: Paul Wegener, Carl Boese


A visually arresting example of early German Expressionism, The Golem offers a twisted glimpse into an old European-Jewish ghetto where the fearsome golem creature wreaks havoc. I was immediately struck by the towering set designs which loom like paintings throughout the film. However, other German Expressionist films stand out as much stronger to me, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Nosferatu (1922). Indeed the film’s cinematographer, Karl Freund, was also the cinematographer of two other classic Expressionist films: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh (1924).

The Golem is an adaptation of a 1915 novel of the same name by Gustav Meyrink, an Austrian writer best known for The Golem. Interestingly enough co-director, Paul Wegener, stars as the golem creature in the film, and this was his third of three films made about the golem (the other two being 1915’s The Golem, and 1917’s The Golem and the Dancing Girl). Both films have now been lost but at the time of its release, the 1920 film was actually considered a prequel to the earlier 1915 film also entitled The Golem.

Many of the stylized and disorienting sets featured in The Golem left the strongest impression on me, and the zig-zagging architecture has often drawn comparisons to other early German expressionist classics. The Golem also invites comparison to Frankenstein (1931), for obvious reasons. The story borrows themes from medieval Jewish folklore, taking place in a Prague Jewish ghetto. The emperor of Rome has decreed that all Jews must leave the city, so a leading Rabbi uses an ancient dark magic (Asteroth, known in mythology as the prince of hell) to animate the golem stone in order to protect and defend the Jews. However, once awakened the golem predictably runs amok killing people and destroying the Jewish ghetto until his mysterious, magical amulet is finally removed in the end.

Who is the mystical Jewish rabbi in the film? The answer is Rabbi Loew, a cabalist scholar (1513-1609) who is said to be the inspiration, at least in part, for Disney’s Fantasia (1940), and he has appeared in the writings of both Elie Wiesel and Michael Chabon. A statue of Rabbi Loew also stands near where the Jewish ghetto once existed in Prague. The local Jewish community refers to Rabbi Loew as the “exalted one.”

The golem creature has appeared in many mythical stories, most notably in Tolkien where he is simply referred to as “gollum,” a gray and sorry creature who is transformed into his ugly state by his greed. In contrast in the 1920 film, the golem is tall, stoic, and almost lifeless. Apparently, Wegener’s inspiration for the film comes from an Edgar Alan Poe short story, “William Wilson” – a story about a person suffering from multiple personality disorder. Indeed, the film carries the duality of existence as one of its themes, for example the cold-hearted golem is, in many ways, an extension of the violent alter ego of Rabbi Loew.