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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

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lhnd.jpg (13917 bytes) Director: William Dieterle
Starring: Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, Cedric Hardwicke, Edmond O’Brien, Thomas Mitchell, Harry Davenport, Walter Hampden, Allan Marshall
Screenplay: Sonia Levien & Bruno Frank, based on the novel by Victor Hugo
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Synopsis: In fifteenth century Paris, King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) refuses to have a printing press destroyed, despite the warnings of his High Justice, Jean Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), who claims that the press is the instrument of the devil. A gypsy girl called Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) slips illegally into Paris during the Festival of Fools. A poet, Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien), tries to perform a play with his acting troop, but the performance is broken up by the followers of the leader of the beggars, Clopin (Thomas Mitchell).

Esmeralda dances for the King, who admires her in spite of her being a gypsy, and catches the eye of Frollo, Gringoire, and a Captain of the Guards called Phoebus (Alan Marshall). The people hold a contest to elect the King of Fools. The winner is Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), the hideously deformed bell-ringer of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Quasimodo is given a belled crown and rags for robes, and is paraded around to the ridicule of the people. Frollo intervenes, ordering Quasimodo to follow him back to Notre Dame, where he is delivered to the Archbishop (Walter Hampden), who is Frollo’s brother.

Meanwhile, a soldier tries to arrest Esmeralda, who flees to Notre Dame for sanctuary. There, one of the priests explains to her who the Virgin Mary is. Esmeralda prays to Mary for her people, but is suddenly confronted by Frollo, who has been overcome by lust for her. He accuses her of bewitching him. They are interrupted by the King. Esmeralda begs Louis to stop the persecution of the gypsies. She is granted the sanctuary of the church. She is being taken to her room by Frollo when she suddenly encounters Quasimodo. Appalled, she flees in horror. Frollo orders Quasimodo to follow and abduct her. He obeys, but Esmeralda is rescued by the combined efforts of Gringoire and Phoebus. Quasimodo is arrested. Esmeralda becomes smitten by Phoebus, and takes refuge in the Court of Beggars. Gringoire falls foul of the beggars and is sentenced to death, but Esmeralda saves his life by agreeing to marry him. Gringoire tells her he loves her, but Esmeralda confesses her love for Phoebus. Quasimodo is sentenced to be publicly flogged and left on the pillory. His punishment is carried out when Frollo hears of the sentence too late to prevent it. While on the pillory, Quasimodo begs for water. The crowd only jeers, but Esmeralda takes pity on him and gives him a drink.

That night, Esmeralda and Gringoire entertain the crowd at a banquet. Esmeralda slips away to meet Phoebus. During the evening, Phoebus is murdered. Esmeralda is arrested, but Frollo admits to the Archbishop that his passion for the gypsy drove him to kill Phoebus. Under torture, Esmeralda confesses to the murder and she is sentenced to be hanged. The people are outraged; Gringoire and the beggars plot to rescue her; but her salvation comes through the actions of Quasimodo. Frollo tries to convince the aristocracy to have the sanctuary of Notre Dame overturned, and the people of Paris rise up in protest.

Comments: An entertaining mixture of history and horror, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is an excellent example of the kind of movie that Hollywood did so well in the thirties, a huge, sprawling, brilliantly staged film full to overflowing with talented character actors and memorable scenes.

Most memorable of all, of course, is Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo, a wonderfully grotesque creation whose spectacular entrance at the Festival of Fools is likely to horrify the viewer just as much as the crowd in the film. Even though, like Esmeralda, we become more accustomed to his appearance as the story progresses, Laughton’s characterisation balances the human and the inhuman so finely (Quasimodo covering the worst of his deformities as he tries to tell Esmeralda he loves her, his eagerness in following Frollo’s command to abduct her, in spite of her obvious terror) that the audience is never permitted to feel entirely comfortable in his presence. Whether Laughton’s performance matches Lon Chaney’s is debatable, but it is certainly impressive in its own right. Where the two differ most is that, whereas Chaney’s performance is really all the silent version of this story has to offer, Laughton’s is embedded within a complex cinematic framework.

The film’s detailed but never confusing screenplay cleverly shows church and state together acting like an enormous spider’s web, binding together the disparate components of fifteenth century Parisian society - the beggars and peasants, soldiers and scholars, churchmen and politicians, the king himself. The core of this interwoven community - the spider in the centre of the web - is Cedric Hardwicke’s cold, repressed, manipulative Jean Frollo, who is the film’s true monster. In a role originally intended for Basil Rathbone, Hardwicke gives a performance which surpasses even Laughton’s for sheer horror. Physical repugnance can hardly compete with the sickness of the soul which Frollo projects.

Although his real relationship with Quasimodo is never spelled out, it is easy to see the hunchback’s appearance as the physical manifestation of Frollo’s twisted and suppressed desires. From the first his conduct towards Esmeralda contains a terrible threat. (What is surprising in a film of this era is that it is so clearly a threat of sexual violence. While there is nothing verbally censorable in the first confrontation of Frollo and Esmeralda within Notre Dame, I am amazed that no objection was made to the fact that Frollo looks straight down the front of Esmeralda’s dress for at least ten seconds.)

Frollo’s projection of his own guilt onto Esmeralda, and his consequent persecution and punishment of her, is all the more appalling for its believability. (It may not be couched in terms of sorcery and witchcraft any more, but Frollo’s accusation "she led me on, I couldn’t help myself" doesn’t seem to have gone out of fashion any over the intervening five hundred years.)

As Esmeralda, the nineteen-year-old Maureen O’Hara is so lovely that Frollo’s obsession, as well as the passion she inspires in several other male characters, is quite understandable. O’Hara gives a nicely judged performance, particularly in her scenes with Laughton, where her revulsion at his appearance struggles with her compassion for his sufferings.

The three main actors are well supported by the rest of the large cast. Among those giving fine characterisations are Edmond O’Brien in his film debut, as the poet-playwright Gringoire; Thomas Mitchell as the king of the beggars; and Walter Hampden as Frollo’s brother, the Archbishop of Notre Dame. Best of all, though, is Harry Davenport as Louis XI. I have no idea whether the real Louis bore any resemblance to Davenport’s, but we could wish for a few more monarchs with as much humour, common sense and foresight.

One of the highlights of the film is when Louis, fascinated by the wonders of the age he lives in, resolves to live as long as he can by bathing more than once a year. The action of the movie takes place against some marvellously contrived settings (designed by Van Nest Polglase, they are a clever combination of studio backlots and miniatures), and is captured by some beautiful black and white cinematography by Joseph August.

Footnote: While Charles Laughton had a stunt double for a number of his scenes, Maureen O’Hara did not. You might want to keep that in mind while watching the scene of Esmeralda's rescue by Quasimodo.