The Hunchback of Notre Dame 1923

This post published as part of the Speechless Blogathon at Eternity of Dream. Click on icon at right for more information.

Director: Wallace Worsley
"To the townspeople he was an inhuman freak, a monstrous joke of Nature -- and for their jeers he gave them scorn and bitter hate."
Two thousand extras, nineteen acres of Universal backlot, one and a quarter million dollars, and three and a half hours a day in make-up for the Man of a Thousand Faces. Big numbers abound in the film that made character actor Lon Chaney into a fully-fledged movie star.

Fifteenth-century Paris: the people celebrate the annual 'Festival of Fools', where the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo is crowned King of Fools in honour of his extreme ugliness. Among the crowd is the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda, the adopted daughter of Clopin, the self-proclaimed 'King of the Beggars'. Both Phoebus, the womanising Captain of the Guard, and Jehan, brother of Notre Dame's arch-deacon, have designs on Esmeralda. Quasimodo watches her from afar.

Quasimodo in chains
Phoebus easily charms Esmeralda, and is charmed in turn by her sincere affection. At Jehan's bidding, Quasimodo attempts to abduct the gypsy girl, but is caught by the King's Guards and sentenced to twenty lashes in the town square. The suffering hunchback begs the jeering crowd for water, but only Esmeralda shows pity and fills a pitcher to quench his thirst.

Later, Phoebus takes Esmeralda to a banquet held in his honour. Her father, wary of Phoebus's intentions, gathers a posse of vagabonds from the thieves' quarter, the 'Court of Miracles' (a place where lame beggars can 'miraculously' walk again, and the 'blind' regain their sight), to bring her back. In the ensuing standoff, Esmeralda realises she has no place among Phoebus's peers and resolves to take the vows of a nun. As she and Phoebus share a last moment alone, the jealous Jehan sneaks up and stabs Phoebus in the back. Esmeralda is arrested for the crime and tortured into a confession.

Fearing an uprising among Clopin's cohorts, the courts hurriedly summon Esmeralda for execution: Quasimodo rings the death knell without realising who the victim is to be. When he sees the girl who once showed him kindness kneeling in penance at the cathedral's entrance, he swoops down and drags her inside, invoking the sacred right of sanctuary to keep her safe from persecution. Phoebus, recovered from his wounds, assembles the soldiers of the Guard to rescue her. At the same time Clopin calls for a revolt against the authority of church and state, inciting the masses to storm the Notre Dame. Quasimodo fends off the attackers with a barrage of stones and molten lead, striving to protect Esmeralda at any cost... 

Pressbook, 1923
Deciding what makes a film great should be a straightforward thing; usually the evidence is right there on screen for all to see. The makers of Hunchback of Notre Dame would have had us believe that the film's sheer size made it great by default. Its 1923 pressbook throws out endless figures - 5,000 costumes, 105 electricians, a cathedral replica 225 feet high and 150 feet wide, etc., etc. - to support that claim. In the years since then, disasters like Heaven's Gate or Raise the Titanic prove that the idea is a persistent one despite evidence to the contrary.

But any claim to greatness the current film might have can be laid at the crooked feet of its mis-shaped leading man. Less of a household name now than he was in the twenties, Lon Chaney nevertheless had a massive impact on popular culture and was Hollywood's first real horror star. Film fans still recognise his Quasimodo, or his Phantom of the Opera, or maybe even his boggle-eyed vampire from London After Midnght at a glance, even if - like much of the film-going public in his heyday - they wouldn't have a clue what the private, unassuming actor looked like in real life.

Chaney was already well established by 1923, having been a bit player since around 1912. His deaf parents nurtured in him a gift for physical expression, and his skill with a make-up box singled him out for increasingly visible 'character' parts. He made his mark as the crippled Frog in The Miracle Man in 1919, and double-amputee gangster Blizzard in The Penalty (directed by Hunchback's Wallace Worsley) in 1920. He was Blind Pew in Treasure Island (1920), Fagin in Oliver Twist (1921), and both apeman and mad scientist in A Blind Bargain (1922). An evident skill at portraying grotesque yet believably human characters soon led him to Hunchback, and his biggest challenge yet.

He'd been pushing for the role of Quasimodo since 1920 or thereabouts, though his efforts to get the project off the ground had been hampered by bad deals with financiers and disagreements with Universal's Irving Thalberg about potential directors. It wasn't until August of 1922 when, with Worsley on board, the studio finally pledged to bring Victor Hugo's 1831 novel to the screen. The film was promoted as Universal's 'Super Jewel' prestige production of the year, and allocated an impressive budget of $1,250,000 .

Previous versions of the story had sidelined the potential controversy of the novel's political and religious aspects in favour of the romance angle. We knew who would be centre stage just from the titles: Esmeralda (1922), or The Darling of Paris (1917), featuring Hollywood vamp Theda Bara in the lead role. At Chaney's insistence, Universal instead shuffled the secondary character of Notre Dame's deformed bell-ringer into the spotlight, and he has stayed there ever since. Charles Laughton may have given the character the voice we all recognise in 1939, but when we think of the word 'hunchback', it's a rough approximation of Lon Chaney's face and crooked figure that we can see in our mind'e eye.

Sanctuary for Esmeralda: Chaney
and Patsy Ruth Miller
Praise was lavished on Chaney for his sensitive portrayal of Quasimodo, labouring under (so essayist Robert F Blake tells us on the Image DVD) not the 70-pound rubber hump of movie legend, but a plaster appendage weighing a 'mere' 20 pounds. With hindsight, the temptation is there to qualify that praise with apologies for an acting style that might be viewed these days as unnaturally melodramatic. This would be unfair: in a medium which conveyed most of it's information visually, naturalism was only one approach of many, and Hunchback, crammed with a mess of sub-plots as it is, limits Chaney's screen time, forcing a necessary amount of economy into his characterisation.

It's almost like watching a ballet. Look at the short scene immediately following Quasimodo's rescue of Esmeralda from her executioners: first he gently removes her bonds, then she awakes from her faint and is momentarily disturbed by the grim appearance of her rescuer. Quasimodo's initial dismay turns into relief as she pieces together her situation and wordlessly expresses her gratitude. No dialogue is exchanged, but a wealth of meaning is expressed in those few feet of film. The actor's gestures are unsubtle but graceful and precise, and are traded back and forth a bit like a dance. Would you criticise West Side Story because the fight scenes aren't realistic?

With Chaney dominating so thoroughly, it's easy to overlook the contribution of the rest of the players. There's Brandon Hurst, who led John Barrymore into temptation in the 1920 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: Norman Kerry, who would team up with Chaney again for Phantom of the Opera and The Unknown: and Patsy Ruth Miller, a relative newcomer chosen as Esmeralda after an extensive talent search (if you believe the publicity, that is). Patsy recalls that she was coached during filming by Chaney as much as by director Wallace Worsley, suggesting that Chaney's influence was just as strong behind the camera.

Chaney's cheekbones were built up with cotton and collodion; his nostrils were shoved open with cigar-holders; his right eye was taped closed and covered with a mound of nose putty, damaging his eyesight for the rest of his life; his hair and eyebrows were hidden under a crepe-wool fright wig; new, twisted teeth were fitted by his dentist; then there was that plaster hump, and the harness which held it in place and bent him over in a perpetual stoop. And still Chaney shone through to get the audience's sympathy and the critics' near-unanimous approval. It's the sign of a true star and a good indication of what makes a film great.

End Credits:
Lon Chaney (Quasimodo), Patsy Ruth Miller (Esmeralda), Norman Kerry (Phoebus de Chateaupers), Brandon Hurst (Jehan), Ernest Torrance (Clopin), Nigel de Brulier (Don Claudio), Raymond Hatton (Gringoire), Kate Lester (Mme de Gondelaurier), Winifred Bryson (Fleur de Lys), Tully Marshall (El Rey Luis XI), Harry van Meter (Mons. Neufchatel), Nick de Ruis (Mons. Le Torteru), Eulalie Jensen (Marie), Roy Laidlaw (Charmolu), W. Ray Meyers (Charmolu's Assistant), William Parke, Sr. (Josephus), Gladys Brockwell (Sister Gudule), John Cossar (Judge of the Court), Edwin Wallock (King's Chamberlain).
Story Adaptation: Perley Poor Sheehan, Scenario: Edward T. Lowe, Jr, from 'Notre Dame de Paris' by Victor Hugo, Photography: Robert Newhard, Editing: Sydney Singerman, Maurice Pivar and Edward Curtis, Art Direction: E.E. Sheeley and Sydney Ullman, Producer: Carl Laemmle.
Universal, USA
Running Time 117 mins

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Image Entertainment), from which some information in this post was taken.


  1. Excellent post! Nice background on Chaney and his other roles. I especially liked how you equated watching this film to a ballet. This is truly a memorable role for Chaney, although my personal favorite is Alonzo in The Unknown.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.