Release Date(s)1923 (September 28, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
Known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney turned in several memorable screen performances from 1912 through 1930. His best work includes The Unholy Three (both the silent and sound versions), The Penalty, West of Zanzibar, and The Phantom of the Opera. In 1923, Chaney took on one of his most demanding roles, that of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The film is set in the late fifteenth century at the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Quasimodo, the deaf, physically deformed bell-ringer, is scorned and mocked by the commoners. Dom Claude Frollo (Nigel De Brulier), unlike in Victor Hugo’s novel, is the hunchback’s protector, a saintly figure dressed in white. The villain is Frollo’s evil brother Jehan (Brandon Hurst), who has a lecherous eye for the dancing gypsy girl Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller), the adopted daughter of Clopin (Ernest Torrence), the king of the oppressed beggars of Paris. Jehan persuades Quasimodo to kidnap Esmerelda.
The dashing Captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry) rescues Esmerelda from Quasimodo while Jehan slinks away and does nothing to save the bell-ringer from being lashed in the public square. As the people take sport in watching him suffer under the hot sun, Esmerelda comes forward to give him water.
Phoebus is taken with Esmerelda’s beauty and innocence and falls in love but Esmerelda realizes she’s not meant for the aristocratic life he offers and returns to Clopin and her own people. In a subsequent meeting between Esmerelda and Phoebus, in which she intends to tell him that they can never find happiness together, Jehan stabs him. Esmerelda is accused of the crime and sentenced to death. Quasimodo rescues her and takes her into the cathedral where he and Dom Claude grant her sanctuary. Later that night, Clopin leads the rabble to storm the cathedral just as the recovered Phoebus leads his men to thwart Clopin’s mob. The finale takes place at Notre Dame and contains some of the film’s most exciting scenes.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a huge undertaking for Universal Studios. It was produced on a grand scale at a then-phenomenal $1,250,000. Movie magic recreated Notre Dame. The cathedral set ended just above the main doors. For wider shots, the church’s upper portion was actually a large-scale hanging miniature. It would be lined up between the camera and the full-scale set to create the illusion of the edifice.
Chaney followed Victor Hugo’s description of Quasimodo. For years it was reported that Chaney wore a 70-pound hump on his back. The hump was actually made of plaster, weighed about twenty pounds, and was attached to the actor by a harness that kept him in a hunched position.
Distorted cheekbones were created with layers of cotton, collodion, and spirit gum. His right eye was taped shut and a fake dead eye placed over the lid. Fake hair was used for bushy eyebrows and body hair. Nose putty changed the shape of the tip of his nose, and the ends of cigar holders were placed in his nostrils to broaden the nose. False teeth and a matted wig completed the make-up, which took three hours a day to apply.
With all of this effort, Quasimodo’s first appearance should have been afforded a dramatic entrance. Instead, he is simply shown on the cathedral with little fanfare. Director Wallace Worsley missed an opportunity to build up suspense to the grotesque, unsettling visage of the deformed bell-ringer. Two years later, when Chaney was unmasked as The Phantom of the Opera, his skeletal make-up would be a dramatic showcase for Chaney’s extraordinary appearance and shock audiences.
The adaptation includes Hugo’s main characters with a few changes. Dom Claude, for example, is an evil character in the novel but just the opposite in the film so as not to alienate Roman Catholic audiences. The film was a critical and popular success that marked a transition from Lon Chaney as Hollywood’s leading character actor to Hollywood star.
For a silent film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is definitely watchable and still has power. Though gestures and performances are often exaggerated for emphasis, they represent the acting style commonly used when actors lacked the luxury of sound to clarify their performance.
The 4K restoration of the film by Universal Pictures, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 by Kino Lorber. The restoration combines elements from a 16 mm print provided by Jon C. Mirsalis and a 16 mm tinted print provided by The Packard Humanities Institute. Overall, picture quality is improved over previous DVD and Blu-ray releases but there are still light scratches and emulsion clouding throughout. The scratches are most noticeable at the beginning of scenes. This is distracting for the first few minutes, but once the plot gets underway, the eye becomes accustomed to these imperfections. One jump cut was detected early on. Detail is very good, particularly in Chaney’s make-up, though it also accentuates the makeup’s shortcomings. Textures in clothing and in Phoebus’ uniform register sharply. The tinting adds an interesting element. Various hues are used, ranging from a creamy yellow, peach, and blue (for night scenes). The color is pleasant but doesn’t especially enhance drama. Considering this restoration is comprised of the best film elements available, visual quality is quite impressive.
The musical score is 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. The score by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum and Laura Karpman is a welcome accompaniment to viewers unaccustomed to watching silent movies. It’s quite moving, with a haunting quality that eloquently captures the mood of the film. There are no added sound effects such as the mob surging on the cathedral to rescue Esmerelda as in earlier editions. Initially, this seems like a flaw, but the pure musical track allows the viewer to concentrate on visual storytelling. When Quasimodo rings one of the giant bells of the cathedral, the score incorporates the sound of the huge clapper hitting the bell as it swings back and forth.
Bonus material on this Region A Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary, the Life in Hollywood newsreel, 16 mm home movie footage of Lon Chaney, a slideshow of promotional materials and correspondence, and a booklet with information about the making of the film.
Audio Commentary – Film critic Farran Smith Nehme notes that the film still gets attention because of Lon Chaney, whose performance gives the film depth. Universal called it a “super jewel production.” The creation of the Notre Dame Cathedral involved 750 workers and took up 19 acres on the studio backlot. Victor Hugo wrote the novel as a plea to preserve Notre Dame, which had fallen into disrepair. The novel helped enshrine a preservation movement and renewed respect for the cathedral. Chaney’s elaborate makeup is discussed in detail. He was warned about repeatedly punishing himself for his roles, but he persisted, relishing his ability to rise to any and all challenges. A 100-foot camera tower was built so the viewer could get Quasimodo’s point of view as he watched the people below. The novel mentions that Quasimodo was made deaf by the ringing of the giant cathedral bells but the film doesn’t allude to this. The deafness aspect may have attracted Chaney to the role since his own parents were deaf. Over 100 of Chaney’s films are completely missing. MGM was good at preserving its films while other studios were less farsighted. Often, silent films were salvaged for their silver content or simply left to decompose. “Universal was the king of silent film neglect.” Practically every pre-1928 Universal film without a soundtrack was destroyed. Of the 110 movies Chaney made for Universal, only 13 still exist in any form and only 8 are complete. There is no surviving 35 mm print of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, just 16 mm prints meant for home viewing. Production research took one year before filming began. Hollywood tended to depict nobility and royalty more favorably than it did common people because the aristocracy seemed more cinematic. The novel has a tragic ending that none of the American versions have ever used. The Chaney version makes clear that there is no real place in the world for Quasimodo as we see him ring his own death knell.
Life in Hollywood Newsreel (8:49) – This silent newsreel begins with aerial views of Hollywood shot from a biplane, its shadow clearly visible on the ground. There are brief glimpses of early screen performers including Max Davidson, the oldest screen comedian, Neely Edwards, Reginald Denny, Baby Peggy, Bert Roach, Herbert Henley, King Baggott, Irving Cummings, Emmett Corrigan, Hoot Gibson, Pat O’Malley, and Mary Philbin. The set of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is shown along with Lon Chaney without makeup. Filming with lots of verbal instructions and gestures by the directors appears frenetic and differs markedly from how films are shot today.
16-Millimeter Home Movie Footage of Lon Chaney (13:11) – This silent footage comes from the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Extensive views of Chaney’s home in the Hollywood hills are shown along with Chaney, his wife, and pet dog. In the Big House Party sequence, a formally dressed Mr. and Mrs. Chaney welcome guests. More footage is devoted to the house’s architecture than to the people.
Publicity Materials and Correspondence Slideshow (4:19) – Black-and-white production stills, newspaper ad layouts, telegrams, posters, photos of sets for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the original program book are included in no particular order and without description.
Booklet – A 10-page booklet contains an article about the making of the film by Michael F. Blake, author of two books about Lon Chaney. The booklet also contains 8 still photos from the film, 5 poster reprints, and a listing of cast and key crew.
Previous DVD and Blu-ray releases of the film included additional extras that haven’t carried over. Between the 2014 Flicker Alley Blu-ray and the 2007 Image Entertainment DVD, leftover bonus materials include an audio commentary by Michael F. Blake, the 1915 Lon Chaney short film Alas and Alack, a set of stereoscopic productions stills, and brief behind-the-scenes footage of Lon Chaney.
After nearly a century, The Hunchback of Notre Dame still ranks as one of the classics of the silent era. Charles Laughton would play Quasimodo in a 1939 feature and Disney would tackle the story with an animated version in 1996. The story is a touching look at a shunned outsider during a turbulent period in France’s history and the film contains one of Lon Chaney’s best performances, showing that he was not only a master of makeup, but a genuine actor.
- Dennis Seuling