Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

I've never been a fan of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Victor Hugo's novel may be a classic of literature, replete with important themes and innovations in storytelling, but it's also trenchantly miserable.  I prefer my fiction with a bit less "everything is awful and unjust" to it.  If I want that, I'm confident the real world can provide it.

Of course, like many film adaptations, this film makes changes from the original text.  Some of these were mandated by the year of production - the Hays code that was in force at the time would not permit a film to have a church official as a villain, for instance - but some are, I suspect, a deliberate attempt to shift to a more positive tone.  Not to the same extent as Disney's 1996 effort - there will be no throngs of Parisians cheering the Hunchback in this - but enough that audiences don't walk out of the theatre in a state of suicidal depression.

This film was a star-making project for Lon Chaney.  A respected character actor, his lead performance here as the Hunchback, Quasimodo - including make-up he designed and applied himself - launched him into top tier stardom.

Quasimodo is the half-blind, hunchbacked bell-ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  In the book, his master is the wicked archdeacon of the church, who is a suspect sorcerer.  Thanks to the Hays code, the archdeacon in the film is a saintly fellow, and Quasi's master is the archdeacon's wicked brother.

Said wicked brother lusts after the beautiful Gypsy Esmeralda, and orders Quasimodo to kidnap her.  This goes awry.  The hunchback is captured in the attempt by Captain Phoebus, and publicly whipped for his crime.  Afterward, Esmeralda's kind heart compels her to bring him water, which earns her Quasimodo's love and admiration.

Esmeralda, however, has fallen for the dashing Phoebus.  For his part, the Captain initially sees her as just another conquest to be won, but gradually becomes as entranced by her kind heart as by her beautiful face (a change from the book, where he's quite the cad).

Of course, there's still the matter of Quasimodo's wicked master, who has not given up his own lust for Esmeralda.  He is determined to have her, or if unable to manage that, then at least to deny her to anyone else.

I won't spoil the details of the ending, in case you want to see the movie, though as noted it is less bleak than the book.  Of course the book's ending is pretty much "nobody gets what they want, and almost all of them die in the attempt", so about the only thing that isn't less bleak is Hamlet.

This is a pretty good silent film.  If you have an interest in the history of cinema, you should probably check it out.  Chaney's make-up isn't that impressive by modern standards but is still quite effective, and the production is one of the most ambitious of the era.  If you're the average modern movie-goer, though, then you can skip it.  The acting is typical silent era stuff, and comes across as very overdone by modern standards, and the film lacks the visual flair or thematic resonance of something like Metropolis.

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