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Friday, May 13, 2011

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I've recently been watching some of the classic black and white silent horror films in my collection, and the third one I sat down and watched in my little darkened corner of the world was the 1923 Lon Chaney, Sr film- "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Within the bell tower of Paris's Notre Dame cathedral a deformed hunchback by the name of Quasimodo lives.  The only solace he has from the miseries of his lonliness are the ringing of the cathedral bells.  After an act of kindness done for him, he falls in love with the lovely gypsy girl, Esmeralda.  Unfortunately, both Jehan (the Archdeacon's brother) and Phoebus (the Captain of the Guards) have both been smitten by her beauty.

There are no surviving original prints of this film.  Modern video copies have been made from duplicate 16mm prints that were distributed by Blackhawk Films in the 1960's and 19720's.  The original prints from the 1920's were actually filmed on tinted film stock- the tinting being lost when duplicated.

I have to say, that as much as I enjoyed "The Phantom of the Opera", I enjoyed "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" a bit more.

For starters, there's more energy and action in this film, compared to the later "The Phantom of the Opera".  The pacing of the on screen action was brisk and flowed smoothly, and the balance between title cards and performance was good.  I had no problem maintaining interest and focus on the story and characters.

The acting wasn't great- in fact, I found Norman Kerry's performance as Captain Phoebus to be a little laughable (as was his hair in this film).  Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda was passable, though I found her quite pleasing to the eyes.  I also found Ernest Torrence's performance a little too theatrical, and found his "crazy eyes" more chuckle inducing than anything.  The real stars of this film in my opinion were Lon Chaney, Sr as Quasimodo, and Brandon Hurst as Jehan Frollo.  Hurst was suitably sinister as the Archdeacon's evil brother who lusts and conspires for Esmeralda's hand.  Every time I saw his sneer, I wanted to poke him in the eye with a sharp stick.

Lon Chaney, Sr was marvelous in this film.  He created and applied his own make-up for Quasimodo- which I found to be simply amazing given the time period.  It was this film that began his habit of creating his own make-up.  He brought such energy to the role as scene when he's climbing down the outside of Notre Dame, leaping up to swing on the ropes to ring the bells, and riding the bells themselves.  And given how the make-up pretty much hides the vast majority of his face, it's amazing how well he expresses emotions.  Just an all round great performance in my opinion.

The sets are fantastic, and bring a real feel of 15th century France- even if the costumes are something out of a cheap high school Robin Hood play.  The sets are large and detailed- setting the mood of the scenes effectively.  The camera work is simple- as to be expected from the 1920's, but still manage to frame some beautiful shots.

Given all of this, I have no problems rating, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" as one of "The Good"