Monday 28 September 2020

Movie Review: The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939)

A stylish adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame captures the turbulence of a society on the cusp of foundational changes.

Paris in the late 1400s. King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) recognizes the enlightening benefits of the new printing press technology, while his evil advisor Jehan Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke) opposes educating the people. The Notre Dame Cathedral towers over the city, and the disfigured hunchback Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) operates the massive bells. Archbishop Claude Frollo (Walter Hampden), Jehan's brother, ensures the Cathedral is available for anyone in need of sanctuary.

Spirited dancer Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) sneaks into the city, hoping to convince King Louis to stop the harassment of her gypsy people. She quickly attracts the attention of Jehan, Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal), poet Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien), and Clopin (Thomas Mitchell), the leader of Paris' beggars and petty criminals. Quasimodo is also enchanted by the newcomer and attempts to abduct Esmeralda, but is arrested and faces public humiliation. When Esmeralda is implicated in a murder plot and sanctuary traditions are threatened, the Cathedral and Quasimodo are thrust into the middle of dangerous unrest.

Already the sixth cinematic treatment of Hugo's popular novel, the 1939 edition of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame is the first sound version and a prestige RKO Radio Pictures production. The script by Sonya Levien and Bruno Frank conveys Hugo's favourite themes of oppression, class struggles and humanity throbbing beneath superficial differences, and effectively taps into the parallels evident in rising pre-war tensions in Europe.

The mammoth budget of $1.8 million allows director William Dieterle to recreate a corner of Paris, and the set designs inside and outside the Cathedral are impressive. And in the large crowd scenes, including an arts festival attended by the King and the gathering of beggars and thieves at Clopin's compound, hundreds of extras animate every corner of the screen, bringing Paris to life as city teaming with people, most of them struggling to eke out an existence and praying for divine intervention at the Cathedral. 

As the King notes, until the masses are educated and supplied with knowledge to self-improve, the towering Notre Dame will remain the one and only dominant cultural force. And Quasimodo ironically brings the people together for prayer and at times of tragedy, the same people who are quick to turn away from his presence and mock his physical appearance.

Esmeralda is the catalyst for all the key events, and Maureen O'Hara, radiant in her Hollywood debut, carries the load of disruptor. From praying for her people instead of for herself, to being the only person showing Quasimodo any sympathy, Esmeralda points the way to a better future. Standing against the regressive Jehan Frollo, the other forces of good include the progressive King Louie XI and the poet Gringoire, representing the emerging critical influence of words and the arts in the country's evolution.

In relative terms Quasimodo's role is tangential, serving as a mirror to his society, but from beneath layers of excellent makeup Charles Laughton still brings the hunchback to life in heartachingly soulful notes.

Immense in scope and dramatically captivating at both the individual and societal scales, The Hunchback Of Notre Dame rings all the right bells.

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