The Halloween celebration continues on Turner Classic Movies with the screening of the 1939 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” which is based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo, and a remake of the 1923 silent film featuring Lon Chaney.
The story takes place in 1482 France where King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) and his Chief Justice, Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwick), rule Paris in a rare time of peace. The printing press has just been invented and Frollo has determined that the press will be the ruination of mankind; he also has determined that all gypsies must go. When the annual celebration of the Festival of Fools is held, the gypsies enter Paris and young Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) does a dance while the King and Frollo attend. Frollo is horrified by the promiscuity of the girl, and further disgusted by the appearance of Quasimodo (Charles Laughton): the deaf, disfigured, bell ringer of Notre Dame, who is crowned the King of Fools.
Frollo now wants Esmeralda to be arrested, but she seeks refuge in the church where she is protected. She meets Quasimodo in the bell tower, but becomes frightened and flees the church. Quasimodo instinctually chases her down on the street, catches her, and then brings her back to Notre Dame, but not before being seen by the street poet Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien). Gringoire calls out to Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshall) and his guards, who arrest both Esmeralda and Quasimodo. Esmeralda is sentenced to death for her indiscretions, but shows Quasimodo mercy as he is publicly lashed. The question now becomes, who will save Esmeralda from the gallows.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is really a love story, with everyone being in love with Esmeralda. Gringoire, Phoebus, Frollo, and last but not least, Quasimodo, are all smitten by the young gypsy. Director William Dieterle had considered both Orson Welles and Spencer Tracy for the Quasimodo role, before awarding it to Charles Laughton. Laughton excels in the role of the Hunchback both physically and emotionally acting with his eyes, and Maureen O’Hara, who just died at the age of 95 this weekend, is wonderful as the goat toting gypsy. This movie is one of the all-time Halloween epics. Don’t miss it.
(Available at TCM On Demand).
Reviewer’s Notes – RKO Radio Pictures built one the most ornate sets ever when they created the medieval city of Paris on the RKO movie ranch. The church of Notre Dame is as realistic and detailed as any set in history.
Reviewer’s Rating: 5 of 5 Bell Ringers.