The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame ★★★½

Universal Classic Monster Movie Marathon #1

Let me start at the beginning...

If Thomas Edison hadn’t been such a genius and yet phenomenal dickhead, Universal Pictures wouldn’t exist,

There’d be no Universal horror.

I wouldn’t be able to undertake this fool hardy journey.

Sure we have to praise him for his inventions, like the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and electric light bulb. He is a man to have had a widespread impact on the modern industrialized world, especially cinema. However to fledgeling movie entrepreneurs like Carl Laemmle has was God damned son of a bitch.

You see, when you have a shit load of inventions, you’ve got a shit load of patents and Edison had over a 1000. He held patents that applied to both the creation of movies and the technology used to run movie theaters. With other patent holders he would lead the creation of the Motion Picture Patent Company, thus forming a near monopoly on the production, distribution, and exhibition of all things film. Independents like Carl Laemmle would have to pay, they’d all have to pay.

However there was a place out West where Edison’s patents wouldn’t reach. A little place called California and the Independents flocked there. Hollywood was born. Carl Laemmle would join forces with several other small Independent movie producers to create Universal Pictures with Laemmle at the helm. They then proceeded to make a lot of cheap dreck; principally westerns, melodramas and serials.

It wasn’t until the "boy wonder" Irving Thalberg was put in charge of production that the quality of production went up. Lavish productions with director Erich von Stroheim at the helm appeared, films like Blind Husbands and Foolish Wives, the first film to cost a cool million. Stroheim’s overspending at Universal however would lead him to be one of the first directors ever to be fired.

Thalberg was instrumental with luring Lon Chaney to Universal and the two became fast friends. You feel there was absolutely no one else Thalberg had in mind to play the part of Quasimodo when adapting Victor Hugo’s novel. Frequent Chaney collaborator Wallace Worsley was brought in to direct and the rest as they say is the beginning of history.

I’ve always rather liked silent era films but I sometimes wonder if it’s my love of history taking over from my love of film. I think however Hunchback of Notre Dame is a really accessible silent film which even those who don’t usually like silents could enjoy. Mostly faithful to Hugo’s novel, the film is an incredibly moving romantic tragedy. The film still looks great. The built-to-scale facade of the French cathedral still looks convincing, Hell, all the sets look convincing. This is medieval Paris reborn, crammed full of extras to make a living, breathing city.

The centre of the film though is Chaney. The man of a thousand faces, a man who seemed to take a perverse pleasure in suffering for his art. Chaney created the character with meticulous care as close to the source material as possible. Chaney applied his own hair, prosthetics, makeup and wardrobe in a gruelling 5 hour process. The mixture of putty, prosthetic pieces and plaster hump may look a little primitive by modern standards, but there’s no denying it’s still effective. It was considered as too grotesque by many critics of the time. His body was contorted by a hidden harness, to give him the hunchback crouch. The putty and appliances he wore on and over his eyes damaged his vision and off-screen he had to wear glasses for the rest of his life. He was in agony the entire shoot.

Through all that makeup, Chaney still manages a performance that is both daringly athletic but has a captivating childlike innocence earning the audiences sympathies.

The film’s changed ending may upset Hugo purists but anyone who’s read the book will know it’s a fucking miserable ending. The film whilst still tragic just about manages bittersweet. In my mind it’s all the better for it.

The film cost a million dollars to make in 1923. By my reckoning that’s a shit load of money for the time. It went on to take over three million which by my reckoning was 3 x a shit load of money. The Phantom of the Opera would quickly go into production.

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