A lot of casual movie lovers tend to look back at the Universal horror films of the past and think of them as “cheap” (or “cost-effective” if you want to be polite about it), often citing their limited sets, casts and resources. My brother doesn’t like to watch old films from the ‘30s and ‘40s because (aside from not liking black and white movies), he says that they look like filmed stage plays and the lack of different environments make him feel “boxed in”.
Not the most cultured opinion, sure, but not an entirely untruthful one, either. Many of the Universal horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s did have a claustrophobic feel with a limited number of sets (usually forcing the cast to remain in living rooms and bedrooms for the duration of the movie) and small casts that could feel fairly cramped or monotonous for the audience.
However, if you rewind things a decade, back to Universal’s silent era, you’ll find something completely different. Universal broke the bank with films such as The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, employing massive, lavish sets, plentiful in number, and extras that numbered in the hundreds. While I don’t always subscribe to the belief that all of Universal’s horror efforts in the ‘30s and ‘40s were “cost-effective” in appearance (Frankenstein covers a wide array of settings), their silent films from the ‘20s tend to put them to shame in terms of production values.
Such is the case with 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame…
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)
It is the fifteenth century and it really sucks to live in Paris. King Louis XI (Tully Marshall) and his aristocratic regime keep the peasants and the gypsies holed up in ghettos, forced to eke out a living on their scraps. Clopin (Ernest Torrence), the self-appointed “king” of the ditch-digging scoundrels, seeks to overthrow the aristocrats for the good of the people. While this is going on, several other plot threads unfold, primarily one involving Clopin’s adopted gypsy daughter, Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), who is caught between the affections of the heroic Captain of the Guard, Phoebus (Norman Kerry), and the villainous brother of Notre Dame’s archdeacon, Jehan (Brandon Hurst). As Jehan’s machinations intertwine with Clopin’s, Esmeralda is framed for murder and falls under the protection of the freakish but misunderstood Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), the hunchback of Notre Dame.
For a movie titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the titular freak seems to be the least important character in the narrative. The movie might have been more accurately titled “The Tambourine-Playing Gypsy Floozy of Notre Dame”, as Esmeralda is the central focus of practically the entire film; Quasimodo existing mostly as a means to channel her inherent kindness and to just jump around looking freaky. All the major narratives of the film (Phoebus and Esmeralda falling in love, Jehan framing her for murder when she rejects him, Clopin attempting to overthrow the monarchy, and Louis XI being a dick) all occur pretty much without the necessary involvement of Quasimodo. If you removed him from the film entirely, outside of the part where he attempts to kidnap Esmeralda under order of his master, Jehan, and she brings him water after his subsequent lashing, it really wouldn’t make much of a difference to the developing plot.
So as a movie that’s best remembered for Lon Chaney’s energetic, athletic and hideous performance as the title monster, you might be disappointed to find that his character contributes the least to the film. That aside, his makeup is fantastic for its day and it really goes toward Chaney’s title of “the man of 1000 faces”, as he looks so different from any other part he played. Watching him fling himself across gargoyles and pillars, dangling from church bell ropes and hurling bricks down at the angry mobs below, his performance does more to steal the show than the actual insubstantial involvement of the character.
But to get back to my point about the production values of the film, they are outrageous. A replica of the actual Notre Dame cathedral was built in the Universal lot (and stood there for many decades afterward as a tourist attraction), as was a massive Parisian square, numerous stone buildings and plenty of castle environs, some of the more elaborate ones only being used for a brief shot or two! The film is anything but stuffy or “boxed-in”, as it takes you all through the labyrinthine streets, through gothic church halls, foul ghettos and even down into the catacombs of the city. Director Wallace Worsley takes you to a number of places at a rapid-fire pace (the 117 minute runtime breezes by) and you really get the feeling of this bygone Paris being an actual place and not just some boring set. The hundreds upon hundreds of extras making up the townspeople help, too.
As a horror movie, The Hunchback of Notre Dame isn’t really much of one. It’s a romantic historical epic that just happens to have one ugly supporting character in it. Quasimodo isn’t remotely evil or monstrous (outside of his appearance), only hurting those who attempt to harm Esmeralda or destroy the sanctity of his church. The movie gets its reputation as a horror film because Lon Chaney’s makeup scared the pants off people back in the ‘20s, not so much because it resorts to any standard horror film trappings or even features much of a “monster” at all.
1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an incredible piece of cinema, at least on a visual level (the story is strung together rather awkwardly, as I’ve mentioned) and just drips the word “expensive” in every frame. It’s even more impressive when one considers how early this was in the history of the motion picture. You honestly won’t see production values like this again until the “blockbuster” era of film begins in the ‘70s.