BOOTLEG FILES 176: “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923 silent movie starring Lon Chaney).
LAST SEEN: Available on several online sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only in cruddy public domain dupes.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: An orphan film, despite being a classic.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Not until lost footage is recovered.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is among the most famous productions of the silent era, yet the film we know today is not the film that was first released in 1923. The film also boasts several legends regarding its star, the inventive Lon Chaney, yet research has shown these legends are patently false. The film also takes one of the most profound classics of French literature, Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris,” and takes considerable liberties with the source – to the point that most people know the story through the chopped-up film rather than the original text.
Let’s start with Victor Hugo. In the 1831 novel “Notre Dame de Paris,” the character of the deformed bellringer Quasimodo is not the central figure. Instead, the sprawling novel presented an extraordinary ensemble in a tale that measured the complexities of French society during the reign of Louis XI, circa 1485. Notre Dame Cathedral was actually the central point to the novel, while the character of the gypsy Esmeralda was intended to be the human heart of the story.
Quasimodo, although a strikingly memorable character, was one of the many men who becomes obsessed with Esmeralda during the course of the novel. However, the book’s English-language title, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” gave people the impression that Quasimodo was the main subject.
The 1923 film adaptation was not the first time the story was adapted to the screen. Previous versions included a 1905 short called “Esmeralda,” directed by pioneering female director Alice Guy, a 1917 Theda Bara vehicle called “The Darling of Paris” and a 1922 British film also called “Esmeralda” starring Booth Conway and Sybil Thorndike as Quasimodo and Esmeralda. None of these films resonated with the general public and all are considered lost today.
From the beginning of its production, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was going to be a make-or-break gamble for Universal Pictures. The studio was in desperate need of a commercial hit, and young producer Irving Thalberg convinced the penny-pinching studio heads to spare no expense in this effort. The budget eventually rose to $1.25 million and the shooting schedule spread across six months, which was wildly elaborate for the era.
To play Quasimodo in the film, the casting choice was the ultimate no-brainer. Lon Chaney had already established himself as a star through his inventive use of make-up and his extraordinary physical performances. Films such as “The Miracle Man” (1919) and “The Penalty” (1920) provided Chaney with the ability to channel the mix of emotions that fuel characters with physical deformities.
Chaney’s make-up as Quasimodo was clearly among the most grotesque seen on screen at that time. The Universal publicists played up the extremes of Chaney’s appearance by planting the story of how the actor wore heavy back braces weighing up to 60 pounds in order to simulate the acute deformities of Quasimodo’s body. In truth, Chaney only wore a plaster cast that weighed no more than 10 pounds – yet amazingly, the heavy back brace story is still circulated.
Furthermore, PR legend insisted that Chaney performed the astonishing stunts up and down the vast Notre Dame set in his Quasimodo make-up and costume. In truth, unbilled stuntman Joe Bonomo performed the stunts widely credited to Chaney.
Patsy Ruth Miller, who played Esmeralda, would later write in her autobiography that Chaney directed several sequences. However, there is no independent verification of this. Wallace Worsley, who directed Chaney in “The Penalty” and “A Blind Bargain” (1922), was more than capable of helming a movie and deserves full credit for directing this film.
In creating this adaptation, Universal ran up against a rather sticky problem with the original text. Victor Hugo’s villain, Archdeacon Claude Frollo, is obsessed with heretical pursuits of alchemy and mysticism. Frollo is also obsessed with the lovely Esmeralda, which naturally creates a bit of a problem considering carnal frenzy doesn’t jive with the basic tenets of priestly celibacy.
Rather than aggravate Catholic moviegoers, Universal made a major revision to the story. In the film, Frollo is depicted as a kindly man of the cloth. His younger brother Jehan, however, is now the boo-hiss-boo villain who creates all sorts of grief. In the Hugo book, Jehan is a relatively minor figure – an occasional partner in crime to Frollo, but not the main force of evil.
But in pulling that thread from the Hugo tapestry, writers Edward T. Lowe and Perley Poore Sheehan began taking more liberties. In the book, the dashing soldier Phoebus unapologetically abandons Esmeralda to be executed (she is arrested for fatally stabbing him, but her sentence is not voided when the truth arises that he was not killed). In the film, however, Phoebus is literally the knight in shining armor that rescues Esmeralda from Jehan. The book also has Quasimodo killing Frollo for planning Esmeralda’s doom, and the bellringer ends his own life by sealing himself within Esmeralda’s tomb alongside the dead gypsy. In the film, though, Jehan fatally stabs Quasimodo, who is able to kill Jehan before succumbing to his wounds.
Clearly, the changes make a mess of the Hugo tragedy and shoehorns a bizarre happy ending (the handsome soldier gets the exotic beauty) that sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Yet the film’s influence was so strong that subsequent remakes (the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and the 1996 Disney animated feature) kept many of these changes or tweaked them even further (both the RKO and Disney versions made Frollo a judge and introduced another deacon as the kindly clergyman). A 1957 French film version starring Anthony Quinn was actually closer to the original text (although it made Frollo an alchemist rather than a judge), but it is also the least competent of the major film versions.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was a major hit for its time. Reviews were mostly rapturous, although Variety was aghast and called it “a two-hour nightmare…nothing but misery, tiresome, loathsome misery that doesn’t make you feel any the better for it.” Ouch!
However, if you watch “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” today, you’re not watching the 1923 release. The negative and all prints from that production are lost. All that exists of the film today comes from 16mm Show-at-Home Library prints that Universal sold to private collectors. There are significant problems with these prints.
First, about 20 minutes of the original footage is missing. This contributes to a choppy narrative in the surviving prints, and still photographs of the cut footage (including some surprisingly grim torture chamber scenes) suggests the loss is significant.
Second, the surviving prints are among the worst quality in circulation. Universal allowed the film to lapse into the public domain, thus opening “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to an attack by bootleggers. A surplus of video and DVD copies are taken from what appears to be fourth generation dupes, which makes a mockery of the original cinematography. Too many video/DVD copies also have the film projected at the incorrect speed, which creates more problems for today’s viewer.
And truth be told – “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is not that great of a film. Yes, Chaney is amazing as Quasimodo – and that’s all the film has going for it. The sole reason the film is recalled today is because of Chaney’s outrageous physical presence and hideous make-up. But the performance in not subtle, with too much theatricality in the gesturing and emoting, and Chaney’s Quasimodo often veers towards the ridiculous rather than the sublime (Charles Laughton gave the role much-needed pathos in 1939’s version).
If one were to score the film based on the ensemble, the direction or the screenplay, it would barely pass. In particular, Patsy Ruth Miller’s Esmeralda is so bland that it is impossible to understand why the men in the movie go ape shit over her. She possessed none of the sensuality that Maureen O’Hara or Gina Lollobrigida brought to the role in the 1939 and 1957 remakes, it is hard to imagine that Miller surpassed the legendary Theda Bara in her now-lost 1917 version.
Yes, the epic scope of this production, with the hundreds of costumed extras is a sight to behold – but so many films have been able to pack the screen with hundreds of costumed extras, so there’s nothing that remarkable about the masses gathered here. And yes, the Notre Dame set was brilliantly designed (it remained standing until 1967, when fire destroyed it). But really, unless you are watching a film solely to enjoy a surplus of extras or to marvel at set design, the film has no emotional power.
Because this is an orphan film, there is no interest in doing a proper restoration. And since the original source materials and a good chunk of the original footage are missing, there is no way possible to restore it to its original condition. But since the film is considered a classic (maybe because the PD dupes are so ubiquitous), “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is pretty much stuck in its substandard condition today.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on April 13, 2007 in Bootleg Files, Features by Phil Hall
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