The Hunchback on Notre Dame (1939)
PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):
Overcome by lust, High Justice Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke) — a religious fraud — dispatches deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) to kidnap winsome gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara). But Quasimodo is thwarted and pays for his crime with a public flogging. Esmeralda offers him comfort, and her kindness kindles his passion. When she’s later falsely convicted of murder and condemned to death, only the love-struck Quasimodo can save her.
I think the majority of people are familiar with this story because of the 1996 Disney version. The 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, though, actually was the visual basis for much of that film. Watching it this evening, I was able to actually pick up on little things, such as the design of Quasimodo, for instance. One of these days, I am going to get around to reading this book again. In the meantime, I can enjoy the film versions…or can I?
What did I like?
Hunchback. I was initially under the impression that this was a silent film of the horror variety. Something akin to Nosferatu. With that in mind, I had high expectations for Quasimodo. These hopes didn’t waiver when I found out that this was a picture with sound. If anything, I think I was more impressed with Charles Laughton’s take on the character, even if he did resemble Sloth from The Goonies.
Mystery. In the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Quasimodo isn’t as much a mysterious presence. Granted, this is because that is a more family friendly film…or at least it is supposed to be. In this version, though. Quasimodo is that presence that makes the townspeople uncomfortable, yet intrigued.
Romani. It seems that gypsies are all over the place lately. Well, at least down in my little world they are. Certain people in this house have a sudden gypsy obsession. Anyway, the gypsies play a fairly major role, but not as big as the one they play in other versions. I wonder why this is? Still, their contribution is noted.
What didn’t I like?
King Louis. I don’t believe he plays this major a role in the book and in this film he may be the voice of reason, of sorts, but he seems to be out of place. Frollo is the bad guy, and his brother the cardinal is the apparent good guy, but the king (who doesn’t even look like a king, mind you), he’s just the proverbial creepy uncle you have to invite to family functions.
Connection. I didn’t feel any connection to these characters. They seemed almost one-dimensional at times, which is a crying shame, if you ask me, because Victor Hugo did an excellent job of fleshing them out in his immortal novel, but filmmakers can’t seem to bring that out on film, apparently.
Notre Dame. I was expecting more scenes in Notre Dame. Quasimodo is the bell ringer, after all, but that didn’t happen. We get a few scenes in there, but they’re barely enough to sneeze at. Then again, it isn’t like this was filmed on location, so it might be a good thing that we didn’t get any more scenes in that second-rate re-creation.
For a classic film that is renown as the best interpretation of this novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame delivers on all accounts. Not to sound like a supervillain, but it is sheer elegance in its simplicity. While it isn’t perfect, it does a good job of trying to be. I highly recommend this film. Perhaps even package it with the Disney version and have a Hunchback night of sorts.
3 3/4 out of 5 stars