Directed By: Wallace Worsley
Starring: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry
Line from the film: "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"
Trivia: Over 750 technicians worked on this film, including 105 electricians
Based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame transports us to 15th century Paris, during the reign of France’s tyrannical king, Louis XI (Tully Marshall).
As the movie opens, the citizens of Paris are celebrating Festival Day, during which Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), the hunchbacked bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, is crowned “King of the Fools”. A servant of the sinister Jehan (Brandon Hurst), whose brother, Don Claudio (Nigel de Brullier), is Archdeacon of Notre Dame, the deaf and partially blind Quasimodo is often the target of ridicule. Alas, things only get worse for poor Quasimodo when Jehan orders him to kidnap the beautiful Gypsy, Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller), the adopted daughter of Clopin (Ernest Torrence), the self-appointed “King of the Beggars”. Jehan longs to make Esmerelda his own, but it’s Phoebus (Norman Kerry), the Captain of the King’s Guard, who has captured the young Gypsy’s heart. When Quasimodo’s attempt to abduct Esmerelda fails, he’s arrested by the guard and whipped in the public square, after which Esmerelda, taking pity on the hunchback, brings him water and tends to his wounds.
Later on, as Phoebus and Esmerelda are enjoying a romantic evening, the jealous Jehan sneaks up behind them and stabs Phoebus in the back. When the King’s guard arrives on the scene, they accuse Esmerelda of carrying out the attack, at which point she’s arrested. Sentenced to death for a crime she didn’t commit, Esmerelda is eventually rescued from the hangman’s scaffold by Quasimodo, who remembers the kindness she once showed him. Granted sanctuary by Don Claudio, Esmerelda will remain in the Cathedral until her case is appealed. But can Quasimodo protect her from the treacherous Jehan, whose desire to possess Esmerelda is so strong that he’s willing to start a war over her?
There are aspects of 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame that are beyond impressive, starting with the set pieces. Constructed on the backlot of Universal Studios, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and its surrounding area look so convincing that you’d think the movie was shot in Paris. In addition, the film features a number of big scenes, including the peasant’s attack on Notre Dame late in the film, during which Clopin and his followers attempt to free Esmerelda before the King’s men come to collect her (in one of the movie’s more disturbing moments, Quasimodo tries to stop the attackers by pouring molten lead from the roof of the Cathedral, which rains down on the unsuspecting rabble).
Still, even with its enormous sets and scores of extras, it’s Lon Chaney, hiding behind layers of grotesque make-up, who makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame into the amazing motion picture that it is. Using Hugo’s description of the Hunchback as a starting point, Chaney devised his own make-up, using all his skills to transform into the hideous Quasimodo. And while the actor did occasionally rely on the services of a stuntman (including Harvey Parry, who also worked on Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!), Chaney himself performed parts of an early scene in which Quasimodo shimmies down the Cathedral’s front wall, doing so in full-make-up, and with one eye completely covered (Quasimodo’s right eye bulges out of its socket).
This isn’t my favorite cinematic take on Hugo’s classic tale (that honor belongs to the 1939 version, in which Charles Laughton stars as Quasimodo). Yet there’s no denying that 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an exciting, dramatic motion picture, made all the more so by the presence of Lon Chaney, playing (as he would many times throughout his career) a deformed, monstrous individual with very human emotions. In his capable hands, Quasimodo is both the most repulsive and most magnetic character in the entire film.