Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1939)

Director: William Dieterle

Lon Chaney’s 1923 film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame had long been considered one of the finest performances of the famed actor, known for his tremendous make-up created characters, and having been one of the finest silent pictures ever produced. Sixteen years removed from the heralded Universal picture and RKO Studios bids to surpass the great Chaney picture by pulling out nearly all stops in producing their own lavish production of the Victor Hugo novel. Starring the decorated Charles Laughton as the grotesquely misunderstood hunchback, Quasimodo, and containing the most expensive sets in the studio’s history, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an undertaking the studio wished would be of historical proportions.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a creative adaption of the Victor Hugo novel a physically disabled outcast in Paris who finds compassion in a beautiful gypsy girl whose attractive qualities leads to misfortunes. Taking liberties with the original novel the story follows the misunderstandings of two individuals. The deaf and misshapen Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is ridiculed and mocked purely due to his distorted appearance. Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) is a beautiful young lady shunned for being a gypsy. As Quasimodo is openly punished and wrongfully ridiculed for being a beastly figure, Esmeralda takes pity on the man with a simple gesture. However, her beauty catches the eye of many, including the jealous Jehan Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), chief justice of Paris and brother of Norte Dame’s holy archdeacon, who goes as far as murdering one of her greatest admirers, the handsome Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal), framing Esmeralda for the death. At her public hanging Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda into the sanctuary of the cathedral of Notre Dame, much to the disgust of the furious hordes of Persians, ultimately vanquishing the vengeful sends Frollo.

Laughton's Quasimodo would become the iconic version of the character.
As an attempted prestige picture RKO powers at full steam to produce some of the largest and most lavish sets seen in a recreation of the cathedral of Norte Dame and its surrounding streets. Filled with moments of epic seas of humanity and awe-inspiring images in the film, the feature at times suffers from overly simplified screenwriting and lack of creative filmmaking vision. That is not to say the film is not good. In the overall scope of cinematic time this version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame has proven to be vastly popular even with its alterations to the original storyline due to the motion picture production code of the time. The film stays true to the root of the tale, which is the most important aspect of adapting any story, about the foolishness of ignorance and unjust persecution of others simply based on appearance or birth status as people should be judge on the person they are within.

The production of this picture heavily lies on the shoulders of its star, the talented British actor Charles Laughton. First approach with the idea of a new adaption back in 1934 by MGM’s genius producer Irving Thalberg, it would not be until Laughton left his studio in England, due to the rise of World War II, in 1939 and signing with RKO that the project would come to fruition. He would have major say over the look of the iconic character of Quasimodo as he did not want to be compared to the stunning images of Lon Chaney from the 1923 silent film. Laughton also campaigned for the casting of nineteen year-old unknown Maureen O’Hara for the part of the gypsy Esmeralda having discovered her himself in England

To add to the publicity of the feature the studio refused to release any images of Laughton in full Quasimodo make-up, adding to the shock value of Laughton’s reveal in the feature. All artwork and publicity materials had Quasimodo in silhouette, manifesting minimal detail to keep audiences captivated and wanting to see what Laughton’s appearance would be as Quasimodo.

The make-up chair was an ordeal for Laughton. At first he had many quarrels over the look of the character with praised make-up artist Perc Westmore whom Laughton hand-picked for the job to make Quasimodo memorable. When the look was decided Laughton would sit in the make-up chair for two and a half hours daily to have everything applied, not to mention the process to remove it every night, making his days usually very long and very painful.

Directing this epic sized period movie would be William Dieterle, whose past works comprised many other historical and biographical pictures including The Story of Louis Pasteur, Blockade, and the Oscar award winning The Life of Emile Zola. Obviously Dieterle was brought in to create the feel and energy of a period drama that The Hunchback of Notre Dame presents with a late Medieval Paris backdrop. Uninspired at times, there are several moments of featureless dialogue which included one forceful delivered by bystander characters in uncreative fashions, making the screenplay appear too straight forward at times. Where the filmmaking shines is with the capturing the large imagery that was created with the mammoth sets built on the RKO ranch in Southern California. Large crowds fed the high energy for the festival of fools and the court of miracles scenes. These lavish moments are punctuated with with the subtle emotional characteristics caught by the action Charles Laughton under the large amount of make-up is what made his directing good in this picture.

Laughton discovered O'Hara, who would play Esmeralda.
Laughton was already a well-respected star, an Academy Award winner, whose status in costume dramas grew in an iconic depiction of the emotional Quasimodo character. Much of the remaining cast would be fairly unknown actors to the American silver screen. As mentioned, O’Hara was a discovery of Laughton in England, who urged RKO to sign and cast her, believing that she was the perfect Esmeralda. Her portrayal of the gypsy creates Esmeralda as a bit more of an innocent girl than a wondering drifter finding her way to Paris, but her appearance here as a nineteen year-old would help open the doors for her to a long career in the movies.

Cedric Hardwicke has the dubious role as the story’s villain, who in the film is Jehan Frollo, brother of Archdeacon Claude Frollo, the villain in the novel. This change in characterization was made for the film to separate the evil villain from being a member of member of clergy; an idea frowned upon in the motion picture censors at the time. Hardwicke’s move from stage acting to the screen made him a well-received actor in many pictures as the 1930s continued on. Also featured are performances by Thomas Mitchell, Oscar award winner for Stagecoach in 1939, as Clopin, king of the beggars, newcomer Edmund O’Brien as Esmeralda’s love interest Pierre Gringoire, and Alan Marshal as a pious Claude Frollo.

Large sets and matte painting recreated Paris' cathedral.
Despite all the liberties taken from the original story the film was rather well received and is thought of as the most popular film adaption of the Victor Hugo novel. The picture is not necessarily the best prestige picture, but it was RKO’s highest budgeted feature outside of Gunga Din. Critics found the film entertaining, but not the finest work of the screen that year. The movie was up for two Academy Awards for 1939, Best Score and Best Sound. At the box office the film would do remarkably well considering it was released at the same time as the hugely anticipated Gone with the Wind. However, due to the large production costs the film would barely make a profit for RKO.

The 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains a well praise telling of the story, commonly embraced as the story better remember, instead of the far more tragic tale of the novel. This adaption would heavily influence the look and plot outline of the 1996 Walt Disney Pictures animated version meant for a younger, more innocent audience, but still containing many of the evils the tale has to share. Charles Laughton had done justice to the sympathetic role of the main character and continued his legacy as a great actor in costume films, which he would be perhaps typecast in. Although with the film’s few writing flaws, overall the picture is enjoyable and is still seen as the most praised or the adaptions.

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