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There have been a lot of misconceptions about The Hunchback of Notre Dame over the years but one thing is certain, it made a bona fide star out of Lon Chaney. What isn't so clear is how Irving Thalberg came to be credited as the mastermind behind the project. Lon Chaney had been lobbying for a film version since 1920 but it wasn't until he shared his ideas with Thalberg that the project got greenlighted by Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. The result was a phenomenally successful film that set the standard for all future historical epics. It also confirmed Thalberg's reputation as a creative producer and helped pave the way for his illustrous career at the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios the same year. And yet, Chaney was really the driving force who originated the project.
Victor Hugo's tragic tale of the deformed bellringer and his love for Esmeralda, a doomed gypsy girl, has been filmed so many times that an accurate count of all the versions would probably be difficult to pinpoint but it's not hard to see the film's ageless appeal. While you may find movie lovers who cite the 1939 Charles Laughton version or even the 1996 Disney animated version as favorite interpretations, the general consensus among actors (Burt Lancaster and Orson Welles to name a few) is that Chaney remains the definitive Quasimodo.
The 1923 version is remarkable for other reasons as well. The set alone spanned 19 acres and the actual production required the services of 750 crew members. One of the biggest challenges was finding enough costumes to clothe the more than two thousand extras. The night sequences, which took two months to film, were also a major headache and still hold the record for the largest number of electricians ever employed on one film. No less troublesome to create was Chaney's grotesque makeup which took three hours to apply and included the innovative use of cotton and flexible collodion, adhesive tape, nose putty (for warts), and plaster for a twenty pound hump on his back. Although audiences at the time assumed Chaney did all his own stunt work in the film, he did, in fact, use a stunt double - Joe Bonomo - who was used in the scene where Quasimodo slides down a rope in front of the church and rescues Esmeralda from the King's guards.
Director: Wallace Worsley
Producer: Carl Laemmle
Screenplay: Edward T. Lowe, Jr.
Cinematography: Robert Newhard, Tony Kornman
Art Direction: Elmer E. Sheeley, Sidney UllmanCast: Lon Chaney (Quasimodo), Ernest Torrance (Clopin), Patsy Ruth Miller (Esmeralda), Norman Kerry (Phoebus), Kate Lester (Madame de Gondelaurier).
by Jeff Stafford