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1939: Hollywood's Golden Year
Remind Me

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Monday September, 16 2019 at 12:45 AM

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Remakes of hit films usually sink like stones. But The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) starring Charles Laughton in the title role, is one of the spectacular exceptions. It erased almost all memories of the notable 1923 silent with Lon Chaney, and not just because it was a sound film. Laughton's Quasimodo has few lines, and few of those are more than a few tortured words in length. Laughton turned the suffering, deformed outcast, who accepted and acquiesced in the opinion that his ugliness renders him subhuman, into a larger than life figure, thanks to his embrace of Quasimodo's low estate and bloated, misshapen body and face. Actor and writer Simon Callow wrote a penetrating comparison between Laughton and his brilliant contemporary, Laurence Olivier, likening Olivier's performances to those of a brilliant surfer, while Laughton's, he wrote, were more along the lines of a deep sea diver.

Laughton was part way there, being portly, with a puffy face. He used his features, though, from the start. His breakthrough role (a small but vivid one) was as a swinish nightclub patron, making himself obnoxious at a ringside table during Anna May Wong's act in Piccadilly (1929). His plunge into the role of the deformed bell-ringer, deafened by his job, began by spending two and a half hours each day being made up. Each day he went to work looking like several huge lumps of unbaked dough, a pie face he described as resembling the man in the moon, with an immobile right eye two inches below the left. He did more expressive acting with his left eye than most actors manage with their entire faces.

The card he plays is suffering, none deserved. His moments of happiness are few and fleeting. When he's crowned King of Fools by the street mob at a festival, he doesn't realize he's being mocked. Soon, though, he does. His involvement with a persecuted gypsy girl, Maureen O'Hara's Esmeralda, is, in the end, heartbreaking. When he tries to carry her off, he's caught and flogged. We are spared little of the cruelty of the 15th Century. The flogging and subsequent pillorying are public entertainment, with jeers and laughter from the crowd. Quasimodo writhes under the lash, but remains silent. The sight of his exposed hump, even though we know it to be false, makes us writhe at our inability to tear our eyes from the grotesquerie. And when Esmeralda is the sole one to take pity on him and offer him water, it's initially sweet, but ends in tears, starting with his working up the agonized courage to look her in the eye.

The narrative is too lusty and red-blooded for anyone to have much time for romantic pining, even though most of the male leads fall just as hard for Esmeralda. Quasimodo's joy peaks in a scene when he lies on his back on a crossbeam in the bell tower, ringing the giant bells with his feet, blissful in the moment of dignity he enjoyed. Laughton had worked with O'Hara in London and it was he who got her cast. When she isn't busy dodging or encouraging this or that admirer, Esmeralda punctuates her campaign for gypsies' deliverance from persecution with a tambourine dance. She's fine as the medieval sex object, although in one torture scene, where her screams were judged insufficiently hair-raising, RKO dubbed Fay Wray's from King Kong (1933).

The suitor who gives her the most grief is Cedric Hardwicke's Chief Justice, who, rebuffed, murders the soldier she is attracted to and pins it on her. Not once, but twice, Quasimodo rescues her, rushing her off to Notre Dame, holding her above his head (she has conveniently fainted), and shouting in his ruined voice, "Sanctuary." In fact, the film goes most Hollywood costume dramas one better by almost getting the actual politics of the age right. King Louis XI ruled during a time of transition. When the nobles want to violate Notre Dame's traditional sanctuary, it's seen in the context of him being pitted against the nobles, whose power he means to reduce. As played by the ever-amiable Harry Davenport, there's a bit too much tilt in the direction of comic doddering, although the king's political shrewdness at opening opportunities for the increasingly important bourgeois is made clear. Here, he's a wise if sometimes befuddled father figure whose progressive views and generous heart counter the otherwise rampant cruelty. He's a plus.

Hardwicke plays the Chief Justice's ironclad evil authoritatively, while Walter Hampden, the distinguished Shakespearean actor in his first sound film, brings gravity and principle to the Archbishop of Paris. Thomas Mitchell, who could be counted on to bring warmth and salt-of-the-earth humanity to every role he played, is another asset as the Beggar King, who leads a march on the cathedral to rescue (he thinks) Esmeralda, only to be pelted from on high by Quasimodo with stones and molten lead belching from the mouths of gargoyles. It's fun, too, to see Edmond O'Brien in an early career role as a poet, pamphleteer and would-be firebrand who arrives at a happier ending here than in Victor Hugo's novel. RKO knew it would be going up against Chaney, and served this Hunchback up with all the trimmings. It's almost enough to make one wonder why it took three more centuries for the French Revolution.

Ordinarily, The Hunchback of Notre Dame would be bedecked with Oscar® nominations, if not Oscars®. 1939 was no ordinary year for Hollywood, though. Many, including this writer, believe that Hollywood peaked in 1939. Thus, The Hunchback of Notre Dame faced stiff competition from Gone With the Wind, Stagecoach, Wuthering Heights, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dark Victory, Ninotchka, The Wizard of Oz, Love Affair and Of Mice and Men. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was nominated only for Alfred Newman's vibrant score and for Best Sound Recording. It won neither. Gone With the Wind took the Best Picture statue and a host of others in a year where there never have been so many beautiful losers.

By Jay Carr



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