The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Films in BOLD will Air on TCM * | VIEW TCMDb ENTRY
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) was RKO Studio's last release of the 1930s. It was also one of the studio's biggest and best films of 1939, the studio's most successful year ever. A sensitive adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame told the story of a deformed bell-ringer's love for a beautiful gypsy woman amidst the turmoil in France under King Louis XI. The film, made brilliant by massive production design, Alfred Newman's rousing score, beautiful camerawork, and performances to match, was a spectacular hit at the box office, despite being released the same year as Gone With the Wind(1939). The film's biggest asset, Charles Laughton's performance as Quasimodo, still stands today as the most moving interpretation of Hugo's tragic hero.
The daunting task of translating Hugo's literary masterpiece into a movie was entrusted to Sonya Levien, but she was able to make the story relevant to contemporary times, particularly in the way she drew an obvious parallel between the persecuted gypsies of Paris and the treatment of Jews in pre-World War II Germany. The Russian-born Levien grew up in the United States, and began her prolific career by becoming a magazine editor and then a writer. After several pieces of her fiction were adapted for the screen in the early 1920s, Levien became an active screenwriter. She wrote many screenplays during the thirties, culminating with a script for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), based on an adaptation by Bruno Frank. Levien earned many accolades during her long screenwriting career, including an Academy Award® in 1955 for Interrupted Melody. But it was the Screen Writers Guild (now known as the Writers Guild of America) that bestowed perhaps her most distinguished award. In 1953, Levien was the first recipient of the Laurel Award of Achievement, given to that member of the Guild who, in the opinion of the current Board of Directors, has advanced the literature of the motion picture through the years, and who has made outstanding contributions to the profession of the screenwriter. This is an honorary award and is still the Guild's highest honor to give. Previous Laurel Award recipients include Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich (1956), Casey Robinson (1968), Carl Foreman (1969), Dalton Trumbo (1970), Ernest Lehman (1972), Frank Pierson (1992), Paul Schrader (1999), and many others.
For Levien's adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame more than $2 million was spent on the production. It marked the screen debut of Maureen O'Hara (as Esmeralda) and the recreation of Paris was built on a vast set in the San Fernando Valley. The famous Hunchback makeup, designed by Perc Westmore, took months to evolve due to Charles Laughton's sense of perfectionism. The actor also insisted that his hump have ample weight to which Westmore replied, 'Why doncha just act it?' This comment made the temperamental Laughton explode, shouting, 'Don't you ever speak to me like that again, you hired hand!' The meticulous attention to detail and the long hours filming under the hot summer sun eventually paid off for Laughton because his performance was universally praised. Regarding the powerful scene when the Hunchback is being punished on the wheel, his director, William Dieterle said, "when Laughton acted that scene, enduring the terrible torture, he was not the poor crippled creature expecting compassion from the mob, but rather oppressed and enslaved mankind, suffering the most awful injustice."
Director: William Dieterle
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Bruno Frank, Victor Hugo (novel Notre-Dame de Paris)
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Music: Alfred Newman
Principle Cast: Charles Laughton (Quasimodo, the bell ringer), Cedric Hardwicke (Jean Frollo, Chief Justice of Paris), Maureen O'Hara (Esmeralda, a gypsy), Edmond O'Brien (Pierre Gringoire, poet), Harry Davenport (Louis XI, King of France), Thomas Mitchell (Clopin, King of Beggars), Walter Hampden (Claude Frollo, Archbishop of Paris)
BW-117m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Scott McGee