Filmsite Movie Review
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) is one of many film adaptations of the classic 1831 Victor Hugo 'beauty and the beast' novel about a deaf, hunch-backed, outcast bellringer Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) in the Notre Dame Cathedral tower in medieval 15th century Paris, who fell in love with beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda (18 year-old Maureen O'Hara in her first major US role). Due to prejudice and crazed jealousy, she was wrongfully framed for murder by the spitefully wicked and sinister Chief Justice Jean Frollo (Cecil Hardwicke). In a number of sublots, various attempts were made to save her from the gallows, by King of Beggars' Clopin (Thomas Mitchell), Esmeralda's poet-husband Pierre Gringoire (young radio actor Edmond O'Brien in his film debut), King Louis XI, and by Quasimodo himself.

This 1939 black and white RKO film version from German expressionistic director William Dieterle, the first made during the sound era, was rivaled only by the 1923 silent version starring Lon Chaney. [Note: In the first filmed version of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Lon Chaney was transformed into the deformed hunchbacked bellringer for the silent film with extensive, convincing makeup (a wig, puffy cheeks, false teeth, fake eye, etc.).]

Charles Laughton, in arguably his best acting performance of his career, was almost unrecognizable as the disfigured and mis-shapen, but sympathetic title character Quasimodo. Laughton's extensive make-up took 2 1/2 hours each day to apply. Laughton had also appeared in another Victor Hugo film adaptation, Les Miserables (1935). A Tale of Two Cities (1935), another Hugo-based film adaptation, closely rivaled this 1939 classic.

The historical costume adventure-drama (with a love quadrangle of sorts) also contained an element of horror - in the character of the deformed bellringer, although the real 'monster' in the movie was the manipulative, treacherous, scheming and villainous Chief Justice (Jean Frollo), who was possessed by crazed homicidal urges stemming from unrequited love. Hugo's book was very different from the film version due to Hollywood's Hays Code restrictions that wouldn't allow a member of the clergy (Archdeacon Claude Frollo) to be villainous, dogmatic, lust-motivated and murderous. To compensate, the negative traits of the religious Archdeacon in the novel were transferred to the secular character of the Chief Justice in the film - the Archdeacon's brother! And a typical 'happy ending' replaced the more somber ending of the novel.

The main thematic strand that ran throughout the film was the conflict between the changing world of modernity, intellectual reason and enlightened progress vs. religious superstition, ignorance, prejudice and the old order. There were striking contrasts between the haves (the nobility and corrupt ruling class) and the have-nots (the common people and the outcast gypsies, lower-class beggars and thieves) - some of whom had formed their own united 'Guild.'

There were also a few prominent dualities in the film:

  • the Kings (King Louis XI, the 'King' of Fools, and the self-proclaimed 'King' of the Beggars)
  • the two "Frollo" brothers (the white-clothed and good Archdeacon, and the black-clad evil Chief Justice)
  • the sacred 'sanctuary' space of the cathedral and the dangerous, depraved real-world outside
  • the "pretty ugliness" of both Esmeralda and the pure-hearted bellringer
  • the two "monsters" (the Hunchback and the 'monstrous' evil-hearted character of Chief Justice Frollo)
  • and the 'kangaroo court' trials and tests of guilt or innocence (Gringoire's 'bell-boy' test, Quasimodo's sentencing before a deaf Judge, and Esmeralda's 'trial by ordeal')
  • the two public punishments (Quasimodo's Christ-like flogging and Esmeralda's near-hanging)
  • the two daggers (Esmeralda's and the King's)
  • the gargoyles and bells - Quasimodo's two groups of friends

Budgeted at somewhere between $1.8 and $2.5 million (and with domestic revenue of $3.27 million), it was one of the biggest productions of its era. (It was RKO's second-most expensive film to date, topped only by the same year's Gunga Din (1939)). The sets were imposing, the cast was first rate, and the script (screenplay by Sonya Levien and adaptation by Bruno Frank) was engrossing. Matte artist Chesley Bonestell created the extraordinary matte paintings used in the film to recreate Notre Dame Cathedral and medieval Paris. The 190 foot tall replica of Notre Dame Cathedral itself (supplemented with matte paintings), was constructed at the RKO Ranch in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, at a cost of $250,000. The film's script - written with the backdrop of war in Europe (and the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 and the persecution of Jews) - made timely parallels between the ostracized Jews and the race of mistreated gypsies (Romani peoples), and dramatically showed the schism between the two socio-economic classes in Paris (the 'haves' and the 'have-nots').

Masterful scenes included the sweeping crowd scenes outside the Notre Dame Cathedral, the "King of Fools" celebration, the military processions, and the deformed hunchback's thrilling and daring rescue of condemned-to-die gypsy Esmeralda from being hanged on a scaffold, by swinging to her on a rope and whisking her back to Notre Dame, while crying "Sanctuary, Sanctuary." Also remembered earlier was Esmeralda's merciful offering of water to Quasimodo after a brutal public flogging in the church square, Quasimodo's pouring a bucket of molten metal from the mouths of gargoyles onto rampaging Parisian peasants from high atop Notre Dame to protect Esmeralda, and the bellringer's heartbreaking closing line next to one of his "friends" - a stone gargoyle in the belltower: "Why was I not made of stone like thee?"

It was remade as Notre Dame de Paris (1957, Fr.) with Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida in the title roles, and there were numerous TV movies (1976, 1982, 1986, and 1997). Also, Disney released a dark and adult-oriented animated musical in 1996 with an Oscar-nominated score by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz.

The year 1939 has been called the "greatest year in film history" by film buffs, movie historians, and critics, chiefly due to the inordinate number of classic films. Some of the greatest films ever made, including this one, were released in 1939, including Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. In France, both Marcel Carné's Daybreak (aka Le Jour Se Lève) and Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (considered by some to be the greatest film of all-time, but banned during the German occupation) were released. Other major classic films in 1939 included Beau Geste, Dark Victory, Destry Rides Again, Love Affair (later remade as An Affair to Remember), Only Angels Have Wings, Gunga Din, Midnight, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Young Mr. Lincoln, and many more.

It was no wonder then, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) was unable to nominate every deserving role. The Academy neglected this film's two main lead roles for Oscar nominations: Charles Laughton as the deformed Quasimodo and Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda. The film had only two nominations and no wins for Best Sound and Best Score (Alfred Newman).

Plot Synopsis

The Opening Title Credits and Prologue:

The two opening title pages of the credits announced: "RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. presents Victor Hugo's Immortal Classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame" - to the sound of the Notre Dame Cathedral's bell ringing.

The film's scrolling prologue described the historical background: the Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453), between France and England) had just ended:

"With the end of the 15th century, the Middle Ages came to a close. Europe began to see great changes. France, ravaged by a hundred years of war, at last found peace. The people under Louis XI felt free to hope again ~ to dream of progress. But superstition and prejudice often stood in the way, seeking to crush the adventurous spirit of man."

[Note: The French monarch at the end of the 15th century was King Louis XI, who ruled from 1461-1483 AD.]

The New Invention - The Printing Press:

In the opening scene set at a print shop in the late Middle Ages in the year 1482, some of the major characters were introduced - including Louis XI, King of France (Harry Davenport) and his racist and superstitious advisor - Chief Justice of Paris, Jean Frollo (Cecil Hardwicke). They both expressed their opposing views on the progress afforded by Gutenberg's revolutionary printing press in the shop (developed in a commercial form by 1450 AD), owned by printer Master Fisher (Charles Halton). Their views regarding the new invention highlighted the difference of opinion between one member of the enlightened king in the ruling class, and another representative who was opposed to the repercussions of a cultural and social revolution that undoubtedly would occur with the spread of knowledge:

King Louis XI: (listening to the bells of Notre Dame) "I've never heard a more beautiful Angelus. Who is the bellringer of Notre Dame?
Printer: "Quasimodo, Your Majesty. The people simply call him the Hunchback."
King Louis XI: "Quasimodo. What an odd name. And now, Master Fisher, let's see what reason my High Justice had for asking me to come to your shop. What do you call this apparatus?"
Printer: "The German inventor, Gutenberg, calls it a printing press, Your Majesty."
King: Louis XI: "What is it for?"
Printer: "To print books, Your Majesty."
King Louis XI: "For whom?"
Printer: "For the people. They will learn to read when they can get books. I can print a volume, like this one, in a few weeks, and quite inexpensively."
King Louis XI: "Imagine, Frollo, a few weeks. When I ordered my prayer book, it took them years to copy it out and cost me a fortune. This is more beautiful than the printed book. Nevertheless, the printing press is a miracle."
Frollo: "A horrifying miracle."
King Louis XI: "Horrifying? This small press?"
Frollo: "Small things have a way of overmastering the great. 'The Nile rat kills the crocodile.' This small press can destroy a kingdom."
King Louis XI: "Oh, come, come, my High Justice, don't exaggerate. What is that?"
Printer: "It is the first page of a new book, Your Majesty."
King Louis XI: "Let me see it. On the Freedom of Thought. Who wrote it?"
Printer: "Pierre Gringoire."
King Louis XI: "Gringoire? Who is he?"
Printer: "A French poet, Your Majesty."
Frollo: "A heretic, sire. To spread him is to communicate disease."
King Louis XI: "How do you know? It may be a great blessing to France if people can get books and learn to read. To me, it's a new form of expression of thought. Out there is the old form. All over France, in every city, there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphal monuments of the past. They tower over the homes of our people like mighty guardians, keeping alive the invincible faith of the Christians. Every arch, every column, every statue is a carved leaf out of our history. A book in stone, glorifying the spirit of France. The cathedrals are the handwriting of the past. The press is of our time, and I won't do anything to stop it, Frollo."
Frollo: "Sire, we must break the press and hang the printer. For between them, they will destroy our old and holy order."
King Louis XI: "No, I'm not such a fool."
Frollo: "I, for my part, will protect France from these printed books, as I will protect it from witches, sorcerers and gypsies, the foreign race that is overrunning all of Europe."

The benevolent and kindly King was impressed by the miraculous invention, a sign of the transition from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance. The press would drastically eliminate the time-consuming, laborious, hand-copying method of printing, decrease the cost of books, increase the dissemination of printed materials and the need for literacy, and create a demand for learning. However, the anti-progressive, close-minded and Machiavellian Frollo was suspicious of the printing press and uninterested in offering the Parisian people "freedom of thought." The bigoted Chief Justice not only condemned the device for threatening "the holy order," but also opposed heresy. He was prejudicially-supportive of the persecution of undesirable "foreign" gypsies in Paris and proposed treating them as outcasts and eradicating them:

Gypsies Denied Permission to Enter Paris' Gates:

Throngs of people were seen entering Paris' gates in the medieval 15th century, including gypsies and other migrants who were held back and whipped into submission. A gypsy father with his family in a horse-drawn cart inquired of one of the Royal Guards why they were not permitted entry, when others were allowed:

Royal Guard: "Because no gypsies can enter Paris any longer without a permit. It's the new law...You're gypsies. Foreigners."
Gypsy: "If the others can enter, why can't we?"
Royal Guard: "They are Frenchmen. You are gypsies. Foreigners."
Gypsy: "Foreigners! You came yesterday. We come today."

The gypsy rightfully pointed out the discrepancy that in earlier waves of immigration, the current Frenchmen were once the foreigners. While the interrogation was taking place, a young, pretty gypsy girl (later identified as Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara)), surreptitiously snuck in, but was chased through the crowd. In the chaos, another young girl named Helene (Angela Mulinos) screamed and fell into the arms of her Grandmother (Gisela Werbisek), fearful and superstitious that she had crossed paths with the Hunchback. She was advised: "Go home quickly, and light the candle." Another woman stated that the Hunchback was "possessed."

The Fools' Day Celebration:

Parisians (including many thieves and beggars) were beginning to celebrate Fools' Day in medieval 15th century Paris with the crowning of a King. [Note: In medieval times, the Feast of Fools occurred on New Year's Day, January 1st, although obviously, the film was portraying a summer-time event.] Crowds roasted a huge pig and gorged themselves on the meat, as others frolicked, played instruments, caroused, drank and danced in the street. Some observed acrobats on a stage, and other contortionists and jugglers. Unknowingly, some in the crowd became victims of pickpockets.

A royal box was set up where the King, his elderly Doctor (Etienne Girardot), one of his noblemen (Fritz Leiber) and Frollo watched the proceedings. After observing an acrobat (James Fawcett) balancing himself on a large ball, a humorous argument ensued between the King and the nobleman about whether the Earth was round or flat. The nobleman started the discussion by calling the acrobat an idiot: "He has heard it rumored that the Earth is round and is attempting to walk to the Indies - the idiot." In contrast, the King was in agreement with "famous geographers and mathematicians" who theorized that the world was round. However, Frollo dismissed the idea that the foolish Christopher Columbus ("the laughing stock of the court of Spain") had sailed in a western direction to reach the Indies. The Doctor also kept insisting that the world was flat: "The Earth isn't round. It's flat....I've observed it in all my travels over Europe - it's flat. Everywhere it's flat!"

As part of the festivities and proceedings, poor and unpaid street poet, playwright, actor and activist Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien), was preparing the performance of a stage play in the square with his acting troupe, including a Grim Reaper figure. He rhythmically beat on a drum to emphasize each line of a poetic proclamation that he was reciting:

"The old can never last. The new is claiming its place. It's foolish to cling to the past. Believe in the future's face. It pains me to relate that death, Is the fate of noble and peasant, alike. You are born in a womb. And end in a tomb."

In the crowd (some of whom wore masks), the self-proclaimed 'King' of the Beggars Clopin (Thomas Mitchell) was determined to prevent the play from distracting 'business' for the beggars. Gringoire continued to enlighten the ignorant populace: "You rest and live, and rest again. Beware you do not live in vain." Clopin mockingly interjected: "And if you eat too much you throw it up again!" The crowd roared with laughter at the joke, as Gringoire responded that he was devoted to truth: "You stupid, ignorant drunkards, you. I offer you truth!" One of the crowd members shouted back: "We don't want your truth!" Gringoire was further ridiculed and the show was interrupted and broken up by the followers of Clopin, who threw garbage at the stage.

A call came from one of Clopin's followers to select, crown and proclaim a King of Fools for the Feast of Fools - "We will now choose the King of Fools. Applicants come forth. Men, women. The ugliest face wins the crown. Ugly faces!" Nearby, King Louis XI of France intoned:

"The ugly is very appealing to man...It's instinct. One shrinks from the ugly, yet wants to look at it. There's a devilish fascination in it. We extract pleasure from horror."

Esmeralda's Sensual Dancing:

After managing to sneak into Paris, pretty gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) was dancing with a tambourine before the mesmerized and appreciative audience (including the King, Frollo, and Gringoire), even though gypsies were being persecuted and considered outcasts (and prohibited from entering Paris). The King noticed the transfixed 'interest' of the mob of bystanders (seen in a tracking scan to the left) who were stunned at the dancer - she exemplified supremely beautiful 'ugliness' - according to one woman who ironically exclaimed:

"That's the prettiest ugliness I've ever seen."

A Captain of the King's forces (later identified as Captain Phoebus) was also spellbound by the dancer: "That girl, what a beauty!" The King was impressed by her sensual dancing with a tambourine, and mentioned: "The people seem to like her, and so do I." To compensate her, he asked to borrow a fivre coin from his Physician, although Frollo snidely remarked: "She's a gypsy, sire." The admiring and enchanted King responded without bias: "Who cares about her race? She's pretty." Esmeralda put the King's coin thrown to her into her bodice.

King Louis XI: (To Frollo) "Doesn't she make your pulse beat faster? What about you, Doctor?"
The King's Physician: "I'm a widower four times, sire, but I could begin all over again."

As she danced, one ominous-looking eye peered out to secretly watch her from under the stage and she shrunk back in horror: "That eye, staring at me," as various onlookers commented: "It's an animal. It's a fiend." It was the first hideous view of misshapen and deafened Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), the ugly hunchback bellringer of Notre Dame - only part of his deformed face was visible.

The Crowning of Quasimodo:

Quasimodo was selected as the most likely 'ugly' candidate and led to the stage by a throng of people: ("Make him the King," cried one female audience member). When he thrust his head through an opening in a backdrop, the first full view of Quasimodo's face, the beggars exalted him as the undisputed winner of the title "King of Fools" ("Well, Quasimodo, we knew you were ugly, but didn't know you were so ugly"). He was presented with a belled joker's jester crown, a robe of rags and a scepter. He accepted the strange adulation and was paraded around on the mob's shoulders, as the rabble sang:

"King Quasimodo, Quasi-Quasimodo. Quasimodo, ruler of fools we bow. All you rabble, scum and scavengers of France. Mark you the fool with crown upon his ugly brow. Hail to the idiot king. Shout and sing Quasimodo, Quasimodo. King of the Fools is Quasimodo. Hail to the king. King of the Fools. Cock-a-doodle-doo. Cock-a-doodle-doo. Quasimodo. Cock-a-doodle-doo, hey.."

Gringoire tried to dissuade the crowd: "I am the true King of Fools. I battle for beauty, and the ugly gets crowned. What greater fool can there be than I?"

After the crowning, as Quasimodo was made a public spectacle through the streets of Paris, Frollo - who was Quasimodo's guardian and adoptive father figure, intervened and rode up on horseback. He shamed Quasimodo for participating in the ridiculing, and ordered the bellringer to follow him back to Notre Dame. Meanwhile, some of the royal guards identified Esmeralda as an outcast who had illegally entered the city without a permit. She fled from a couple of soldiers when confronted and threatened with eviction - she sought refuge in the Cathedral, where Frollo's brother Claude Frollo (Walter Hampden), the Archdeacon of Paris, offered her the church's protection: ("Church is sanctuary for all...The power of the law ends at this threshold").

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