May 16, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Lost in a crowd of greats.
Not a single Oscar. 
That's showbiz"

Maureen O'Hara, 'Tis Herself.

If there's a period in Human History I would NOT have liked to be born in, that would be Medieval Europe. Think about it: invasions, lack of education for common people, diseases, abuses, wars, dirtiness...and even when it's fiction, if there's a character I would not like to be, that's Esmeralda, the gypsy. I mean you have to add to the whole terrible scenario, the fact of being persecuted because of your race, the fact that a creepy archdeacon wants to kill/torture you because he desires you, oh, that in a creepy night, after being chased by an ugly-looking hunchback, you get married with a stranger because a gang of thieves wanted to kill him.

I never liked this novel by Victor Hugo because it give me the creeps. I didn't even see the Disney version. I found the whole thing disgusting.

Then one day I saw the 1939 version (William Dieterle) with my mom on TCM. Yes, all the creepy and disgusting elements were there. And under Dieterle's direction, they were even maximized. An aggresive and vulgar multitude gathers to see people being punished or executed. They're shown laughing at others' disgraces. They become one character, an obscure, noisy character under dark lighting, in a setting that makes you feel the dirtiness of the city, mud, puddles; Paris never looked less charming.

But Charles Laughton was also there.

And he was giving his poor character a soul, some kind of dignity amid such disgrace and terrible times. The hunchback says that he's not human, not a beast. And Charles plays him like a bit of both. Sometimes he behaves like a happy child playing with a new toy, the next like a cornered animal. With his one real eye visible, Charles stares Esmeralda like a sad puppy looking for affection and then like a young man --the character was 24 years old-- hopelessly in love.

Charles is one of the reason why this film is so memorable. What a terrific performer he was. He acted putting together the main powerful core of his characters and rich details, everything in a perfect combination, the kind of combination that makes you think that that's it, there's not other way to play it.

And when you add to his performance the great work from Perc Westmore, at the time the number one makeup man in the picture business, well it just can't get any better.

Maureen O'Hara remembers in her entertaining autobiography (review), how Charles became the hunchback:

When I saw Laughton for the first time as Quasimodo, I almost fell over. I took one look at him and gasped,  "Good God, Charles. Is that really you?" He answered me with a wink and then limped off. The transformation was unbelievable, and was accomplished without any of the advance technology used today (...)
Laughton wanted the hunchback's face to look lopsided, and so the mask had to pull the right side of his face up and the left down. A false eye was placed on the left cheek and Laughton wore colored contact lens in his right eye to give it a cloudy look. The hump itself weighed four pounds and consisted of an aluminium scaffold filled with foam rubber and then covered with a thin layer of elastic. Laughton wanted it heavy so he cold feel the physical pain of walking with it. He also had an inch added to the stole of his left shoe so that one leg would be shorter than the other, creating a natural limp.

When I entered this blogathon, I thought hell yeah, what a great year was 1939...for films. Because that year was a terrible time for humanity. While they were filming, the World War II began. Maureen remembers two related memorable moments: the first, when Hitler invaded Poland.The cast and crew arrived fearful to the set. Everyone started trying to comfort each other. Charles, dressed as Quasimodo, was sitting on his chair, absent minded and silent. But then he stood and started recitig the Gettysburg Address. Like a prayer. Everyone listened to him, moved. Maureen says it was the greatest single piece of acting she has ever seen.

The second occurred when England and France declared war on Germany. They had to shoot the scene when Quasimodo rings the bells for Esmeralda:

It was supposed to be an expression of the hunchback's love for her. But Laughton was so overcome with pain that the emotion of the scene swept him away. He began ringing the bells and then it grew into something that trascended the film. He rang them with a ferocity that I had never seen in him before. The sound was almost deafening. Everybody, including Dieterly, was so overcome we all forgot we were shooting a scene. Dieterle forgot to call  "Cut'' when the scene ended, and Laughton kept ringing the bells until he collapsed from exhaustion.
Afterward. I went to see him in his tent. "Charles, are you all right?" I asked. "It just took me over, Maureen" he replied. "I couldn't even think of Esmeralda up there at all. I could only think of the poor people out there going to fight that bloody, bloody war. To arouse the world, to stop that terrible blutchery! Awake! Awake! That's all I could feel!
In many ways, the war helped Laughton's performance. It became his nexus. It was the voice which he could express the world's pain and suffering "

And Maureen O'Hara --Charles' protégée (he even wanted to adopt her)-- as Esmeralda brings a special light to the film. Dieterle's cameras captured forever this fresh new face, an eigtheen year old Irish girl making her first film in the States. I especially like the scenes in which she talks to Virgin Mary, when she gives water to Quasimodo and when she claims her innocence before the guilty monk. And after re-watching this I thought how great is that Maureen is still with us.

There are some parts in the story that I don't get though. At the end Quasimodo wants to save Esmeralda, the thieves want to save Esmeralda, her husband wants to save her, the Church wants to save her, the King wants to save her...but somehow they all end up confronting each other, instead of uniting against the noble men that want to execute her. As The Captain & Cool Hand Luke would say, what we have here is a failure to communicate :)

But there are more things to like about this film, like Harry Davenport as the The King, who was kind but still mixed goverment, religion and justice. Or Cedric Hardwicke as Frollo, the bad archdeacon (aka the guy with terrible hair cut), who makes his character detestable by working with his eyes when he is near Esmeralda, making you know all about his obscure thoughts. Just check the still. We could name it "My eyes are up here".

I'd like to end this post with a point that talks about human nature. When the people is jollilly watching the Hunchback being crowned king of fools, The King says: 

One shrinks from the ugly, yet wants to look at it. There's a devilish fascination in it. We extract pleasure from horror. 

And I think that's part of us. What makes show business and TV channels and newspapers covering stories of 'celebrities' and people that voluntarily expose themselves so succesful. What makes news channels give the most shocking news first. Maybe we're still a crowd laughing at a human being, finding some kind of wicked entertainment in others' misfortunes and lack of judgement.



  1. I saw this movie years ago and I can barely remember it now--your post makes me want to dig it up again.

    As for Maureen O'Hara, she stole my heart when I was just a little girl. I'll watch her in anything.

  2. Thanks for so wonderfully spotlighting "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and the way it emotionally impacts viewers. When I showed my young daughter (about 6 at the time) the movie she burst into tears as Quasimodo was whipped and said "My heart is broken."

    My kids grew up with the Disney version on a loop and while I don't feel it totally works, I recommend you give a listen to the music. The songs are extremely fine and appropriate to the story, especially Quasimodo's "Out There", Esmerelda's "God Help the Outcasts" and Frollo's "Hellfire".

  3. Gosh, I love this movie so much... so well-acted, especially by Charles Laughton. He's believable in everything he does. Very well-written blog post, Clara.

  4. This is such a moving and beautiful article, thanks so much for it! You've captured so well Laughton's greatness as an actor, and also Maureen O'Hara's sympathy and appeal. I think this version of the film is the best adaptation of the novel ever made. It's also interesting to look at it in its historical context of 1939, as you did. Thanks again.

  5. Clara, a lovely post with a pleasingly personal touch. You were right to single out the image of Paris presented in the film. It really looks like medieval Paris must have. Also Laughton's makeup, which is amazing. So is his performance, all the more so because he hardly speaks in the picture. It's essentially a silent performance. Glad you mentioned Harry Davenport. He's a classic example of a familiar face and voice from so many films of this time who few can name. I also especially liked Thomas Mitchell as the king of the beggars, something of a stretch for an actor who usually played nice guys.

  6. Very nice review, Clara, of a marvelous film--the big Hollywood studios excelled at making historical dramas like this in the 1930s. I especially enjoyed the quotes you included from Maureen O'Hara (her Esmeralda is easily the most sensual least, in the many versions I've seen). But, as you pointed out, the film belongs to Laughton. He could be a ham in some films, but he could also be a brilliant actor and his portrayal of Quasimodo is one for the ages.

  7. Clara, your blog post on THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was poignant and brilliant! I was especially moved by your juxtaposition of the outbreak of World War 2 during the filming, and how it colored Charles Laughton's searing performance. We of Team Bartilucci dearly love Laughton and Maureen O'Hara, so it warms our collective heart to know they became good friends when they made ...HUNCHBACK, and probably also on their previous film, JAMAICA INN (one of my hero Alfred Hitchcock's rare disappointments...but I digress...). I was especially moved when you pointed out now 1939 was a great year for movies and a terrible time for humanity. It's surprising and disappointing that ...HUNCHBACK didn't win any Oscars. And don't get me started on the Academy Awards' failure to even nominate O'Hara for any Oscars! Happily, this unforgettable film is a classic now, and you, Clara, truly did it justice. Great job!

  8. Clara,
    This was beautifully articulated. I can see now why you chose this film to review. I certainly agree that Charles Laughton with his mannerisms and facial expressions make you feel for him and well, route for a different ending.
    Well Done!

  9. Clara, you have written an eloquent and graceful summary of the events that shape the making of a film. You have touched on the emotional core of the story, as brought to life by Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara, and perfectly captured how no film can be separated from the life and time of those who create art. Charles Laughton’s wordless depiction of the hunchback brought tears to my eyes, but knowing that he was expressing his grief for the “terrible butchery” lends the scene an almost unbearable poignancy.

  10. Clara - great post about a great - but, I agree, creepy - film. One of the reasons 1939 was such a wonderful year is the backdrop of world events. It made everyone do their best - and we were all the better for it. Thanks so much!

  11. I watched this film for the first time when I was six or seven. Charles Laughton scared the hell out of me! Right after the movie was over, my parents sent me to bed. Still shaken from the movie I kept seeing Quasimodo's shadow on the window shade. I snapped into action and dived under the sheets. It did not help and I eventually did what any sane kid would do. I
    jumped out of bed and ran back to the family room and the safety of my parents. Many years later I managed to watch the film again without the security of my father and mother near by and still get a good night's sleep. Thank God, my wife was there instead!

    Clara, a great posting on a wonderful film. Laughton was magnificent!

  12. Clara, your review was so moving. I first read the book as a 12-year old girl and never forgot its characters and message. My Mom and Dad saw that Laughton's movie was to be shown on TV and we watched it together. In every way, that movie evokes all of the significant parts of the novel. Laughton -- there just aren't any adjectives powerful enough to describe him as Quasimodo. Brilliant is all I can say. Maureen O'Hara had an aura of pathos and beauty throughout, both of which can be seen in that gorgeous picture you included. The ending was unforgettable, but I always wondered why the novel's ending was not used. Esmeralda was hanged, and after her death, Quasimodo disappeared. Years later, when construction was being done, a mass grave pit was uncovered. 2 skeletons were found together entwined as in an embrace -- one was that of a young girl, and the other a deformed skeleton with a humped back. Stunning.

    Personally, I strongly dislike the Disney cartoon version. Dancing gargoyles and all that. Kids don't need to see great classic literature reduced to a cutesy cartoon. How will they ever know what power is behind the real story -- I think it's a great shame.

    I loved your article, Clara. You really touched my heart.

  13. I second everything that the previous commentators said, Clara. This was a brilliant post! I love how you explored the film in the context of the world events in which it was made, what motivated the acting of Laughton, the first-hand quotes from Maureen O'Hara, and the over all message of the film. Very thought-provoking. Your last point is an especially great insight. Really, I'm floored. You did a fantastic job with this and I always love reading your blog because you always bring out something different and unique and interesting.

    Sorry for my ramblings here... :D

  14. Wonderful! Hate the Disney version, love this version. Lon Chaney's version is interesting but drags a bit. This one is perfect, with Laughton so moving as the hunchback. Wonderful approach to the piece.

  15. Clara, I love the tone of your post, it's so open and expressive. I'm glad you chose to blog on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," you describe it, and your feelings about it in its many forms, beautifully. Charles Laughton seems to be somewhat overlooked these days, he was a tremendous talent - and Quasimodo was one of his great roles. I think it took some courage on Laughton's part to attempt a role that, up to that time, was more or less "owned" by Lon Chaney.

  16. I love this: "When I entered this blogathon, I thought hell yeah, what a great year was 1939...for films. Because that year was a terrible time for humanity. While they were filming, the World War II began. Maureen remembers two related memorable moments: the first, when Hitler invaded Poland.The cast and crew arrived fearful to the set. Everyone started trying to comfort each other. Charles, dressed as Quasimodo, was sitting on his chair, absent minded and silent. But then he stood and started recitig the Gettysburg Address. Like a prayer. Everyone listened to him, moved. Maureen says it was the greatest single piece of acting she has ever seen."

    "Hunchback" reaches us on many levels, as literature, as history, but the bare cruelty and what may be a reflection of our own cruelty is agonizing. You've shown it was a story not just right for the Middle Ages, but straight out of 1939.

  17. Lovely post all around! That image of Maureen O'Hara, staring wide-eyed into the camera ... has there ever been a more naturally striking woman, seriously? And Laughton is just brilliant. The movie as a whole does a wonderful job of distilling Hugo's novel, keeping the spirit of the original while making the necessary adaptations for the screen.

    The Disney version has its moments (and the animation is beautiful, especially in the depiction of Notre Dame), but this film blows it away on all levels.



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