Updated: Apr 26, 2019
Watched Universal’s 1923 adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame on Kanopy (for obvious reasons). I’d already seen excerpts of this silent-era classic on AMC and TCM, of course, but this was my first time viewing it all the way through. Although it’s one of the more revered cinematic interpretations of Victor Hugo’s novel, I found it to be a bit of a mixed bag.
While the elaborately-designed studio backlot recreation of Notre Dame’s facade is undeniably impressive (especially when it’s surrounded by hundreds of extras), the real spectacle here is star Lon Chaney. The legendary Man of a Thousand Faces delivers a nuanced performance that may surprise viewers that mistakenly associate the art of pantomime with exaggerated gesticulation. Chaney does the bulk of his acting with his eyes alone, effortlessly conveying his character’s rage, loneliness, and rare moments of unbridled joy through subtle glances. The fact that he communicates these emotions so clearly from beneath such thick layers of prosthetic makeup—and all without the benefit of spoken dialogue—is nothing short of remarkable.
Unfortunately, good ol’ Quasimodo—y’know, the ostensible protagonist—is often sidelined in favor of the insipid romantic subplot between the generically handsome Phoebus and the generically fair Esmeralda. These two don’t share Chaney’s talent for restraint, causing the majority of their interactions to plunge straight into inauthentic melodrama (the scene in which the dashing guard captain first attempts to seduce the bewitching-yet-naive gypsy, for example, is juxtaposed with the image of a spider creeping towards an ensnared butterfly).
The dastardly Jehan, too, is rather lackluster; he inherits the bulk of Dom Claude’s negative qualities, presumably because casting the archdeacon as the primary antagonist would be too controversial… yet he still seemingly inhabits the cathedral, despite his apparent lack of affiliation with the clergy. His motives are equally vague and inconsistent; his introduction establishes that he’s conspiring to overthrow the aristocracy with the aid of Clopin, the King of Beggars, but he abandons this goal the minute Esmeralda catches his eye. Instead, he decides to use the peasant uprising as a mere distraction—a smokescreen that will cover his escape once he’s had his way with the object of his twisted desires.
It must be noted that, at this point in the narrative, Esmeralda has taken refuge in Notre Dame. Which, again, is Jehan’s home. So the whole diversionary tactic comes off as utterly pointless; indeed, it’s needlessly elaborate and risky enough to severely undermine our villain’s credibility as a cunning schemer.
These are relatively minor flaws, however; much like the eponymous hunchback, if you’re able to look beyond the film’s surface-level blemishes, you’ll discover great beauty. From Chaney’s awe-inspiring acrobatics in the opening sequence to the story’s bittersweet conclusion (which sees our fatally-wounded hero ringing his own death toll, delighting in the sweet sound of his beloved bells one last time), The Hunchback of Notre Dame is as visually stunning and historically significant as the building that inspired it.