It’s a funny thing, but one of the most famous franchises in horror was the result of a film from outside the genre. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not a horror movie, but merely a non-horrific period romance. Quasimodo is deformed and ugly, but he is not in any way a monster, nor does the film attempt to make the audience think he is one. But the performance and make-up artistry that Lon Chaney provided in this film convinced Universal that it would be both possible and profitable to pursue a line of monster movies. Thus, while this 1923 silent film is a romantic drama, it paved the way for the Universal Monsters.
With September coming to an end, it seemed like the perfect time to check out a film that is not a monster movie itself, but is the prelude to so many that have shaped the genre.
And sometimes misshaped the genre.
The story is based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, and though I’ve admittedly yet to read that work, it seems to cleave pretty close to what I know of it. Quasimodo (Chaney) resides in the Notre Dame cathedral, where he serves his master Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the nefarious brother of pastor Claude Frollo. Jehan lusts after the beautiful gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), who has also caught the eye of Quasimodo himself, and the new Captain of the Guards, Phoebus (Norman Kerry). Jehan’s scheming causes Quasimodo to suffer a public lashing after an alleged kidnapping attempt on Esmeralda, and later leads to Esmeralda being sentenced to death for the attempted murder of Phoebus.
This was my first opportunity to see Chaney, the man of 1000 faces, in action and he is magnificent as Quasimodo. The makeup and the hunch, both of which are quite pronounced, seem to hardly slow him down a moment as he grimaces and grins and cavorts around the cathedral, performing acrobatics in the bell tower. Reportedly some of the stunts were stuntman Joe Bonomo, particularly the scenes where Quasimodo scales the walls, and these are impressive as well. But beyond the acrobatics, it’s simply Chaney’s gift with expressions that bring Quasimodo to life. Despite being under what looks like a pound and a half of makeup, every emotion is writ large on Quasimodo’s disfigured face, and it is easy for the audience to have sympathy for him.
While Chaney is unquestionable the star of the film, the story’s focus is on Esmeralda and Phoebus, and the actors assigned to those roles also perform particularly well. This is a silent film, and with the dialogue reduced to title cards it’s necessary for the actors to put some strong emotion into their acting. Both Miller and Kerry turn in great performances, particularly Kerry, who virtually steals the scenes out from under his non-Chaney co-stars.
The film was directed by Wallace Worsley, a frequent collaborator of Chaney, and his skill is likewise in evidence. Paris and Notre Dame look fantastic, and despite the age of the film (and viewing a public domain copy) it is always easy to see what’s going on. The storytelling in the film is handled at a brisk pace; title cards appear when needed, but often Worsley lets the actors mime and gesture, trusting the audience to fill in the missing pieces. Because of the skill of the actors, it works out. The film remains entertaining from beginning to end.
I would have watched the film regardless of its own quality, thanks to its place in film history. But having seen it, I can safely say that it’s an enjoyable film even without considering it as the progenitor of the Universal Monsters. It’s a dynamic tale with characters that are brought to life by a screen legend and several highly skilled silent film stars.