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26 June 2011

[Silent Film Marathon] 15# The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)


Directed by: Wallace Worsley
Screenplay by: Edward T. Lowe JR. & Perly Poore Sheehan
Genre: Drama, Horror, Thriller
Runtime: 100 Minutes

Lon Chaney the star of Phantom of the Opera plays the simple minded, half-blind and deaf bell ringer of Notre Dame in a story of hate, love and deceit. Despite the film’s age it holds out as a classic film about the mistreatment of a deformed man (or referred to as creature). Spending over 3 hours a day applying his own make-up, Chaney gives a remarkable performance as the deformed and deaf Quasimodo. Although Chaney’s performance is outstanding, the film’s central plot does not go around the title as much as thought and Chaney’s performance supports the film. My expectations where a little higher of the film, but despite it’s downside the story is still gripping and purely entertaining. The sole reason the film is recalled today is because of Chaney’s outrageous physical presence and hideous make-up. The original story was not solely revolved around Quasimodo and is among many of the characters in the novel. With it’s divine acting and highly understandable story, it still stands out as one of Chaney’s finest performances and comes through as yet another classic silent film.

 Plot:
Our film opens with the simple-minded Quasimodo staring down at the happy Parisians in the 15th century in bitter hate as he is considered a freak and a joke of nature to them. the story is set in motion when the evil Jehan (Brandon Hurst), brother of saintly Notre Dame archdeacon Dom Claude (Nigel De Brulier), orders the dog-like Quasimodo to attempt to kidnap gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller). Quasimodo is captured and flogged for his crime, whereupon Esmeralda shows him kindness by offering him water. He reciprocates when Esmeralda, framed on a murder charge by the obsessed Jehan (if he can't have her, no one can), is sentenced to be hanged. From there onwards through a series of plot twists and such, from here the film is about Quasimodo who only wants to be loved and the events that follow after his arrest.

A highly deserved make-up achievement
As I said, actor Chaney spent three hours a day in make-up whose costume consisted of a special device that made his cheeks jut out grotesquely; a contact lens that blanked out one of his eyes; and, most painfully, a huge rubber hump covered with coarse animal fur and weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds. Even today Chaney’s make-up is incredible because of how genuine it looks. It was a very fine achievement from Chaney that gives a powerful impact to the character of Quasimodo. Lon Chaney is clearly one of the greatest actors of the silent age, and his performance in this back that up.
Quasimodo being approached by Esmeralda.
The Many adaptions of the book
Victor Hugo’s original novel, ‘The hunchback of Notre-Dame’ (French for Notre-Dame de Paris), written in 1831 has come a long way since. Although not the first adaption of the film, to be exact it is the second, it is the first that made an impression. Since this one there was a version in the late 1930’s, one in the 50’s, several TV specials and even a less harsh version of the story from Disney in 1996. In comparison to this and the Disney version fo the film, it is clear that the story isn’t one really for kids to relate to. It is a story of how people are mistreated, covering topics such as gypsies it seems the story is a little to gruesome for the kiddies. Although, it’s dark themes are still suitable for the young audience and the Disney version was also toned down and entertaining. The screenplay of this film may not have focused around it’s title character, but Quasimodo, among the huge cast in this Universal production was still entertaining.

Overall:
I also give the film merit for it's huge sets and wide cast, which for a silent film is quite colossal. With the huge Notre Dame that towers over Paris and the beautiful interiors it holds the film has a remarkable direction of art. Quasimodo is truly a character you can relate to. All he ever wanted was to be loved, and is truly a heartfelt and peaceful person. Among Chaney with a terrific performance is the characters Esmeralda, Jehan, Phoebus and Clopin who also give great performance. The story has come a long way since written, and many adaptions have been made, whether it’s film, TV or stage plays. If it were not for Chaney’s gripping performance, the film would not be as powerful as it is. Overall The Hunchback of Notre Dame is worth no more than a high 70% but is still a delightful story with grand performances and a plot that still holds its audience.

My Rating: 7.5/10

It is on the public domain. You can watch it on youtube here:

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