Note: This is an entry in the Chaney Blogathon hosted by the lovely Movies, Silently (whose wonderful blog can be found here: http://moviessilently.com/) and The Last Drive In (whose equally wonderful site can be found here: http://thelastdrivein.com/).
Normally, I would wonder why a movie’s title character isn’t at the forefront of a poster, instead being pushed to the background. It’s an odd choice to be sure. The title character usually is the center of attention, the person around which the whole story hinges. This is not the case with the 1923 silent adaption of the famous Victor Hugo novel, which suffers from this difference from the norm.
Along with The Phantom of the Opera (1925), The Hunchback of Notre Dame is probably Lon Chaney Sr.’s best known film. The movie is a gift and a curse in hindsight. It did help put him on the map as a staring actor, but it is also partly responsible for the misconception that he mainly did horror films, which simply isn’t the case. There’s nothing wrong with doing horror films, but it’s sad that so many single him out as only a horror actor when he had a wide variety of genres under his belt. That being said, this 1923 classic has probably done more good than harm. Its high reputation, along with my love of the often underrated silent film, is a primary reason I decided to slip it into the old DVD player for this blogathon.
Chaney plays the deformed Quasimodo, who lives most of his life in the famous Notre Dame Cathedral ringing the famous bells, which has made him completely deaf. He rarely leaves the church due to the constant daunts and hate he gets regarding his grotesque features from the citizens of Paris.
Besides the kindly priest Claude Frollo, there is only one person who shows Quasimodo compassion, the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda (played by Patsy Ruth Miller). Sadly, she does not love him in the way he wishes she would. The romantic part of her heart belongs to Captain Phoebus (played by Norman Kerry).
The famous hunchback is not the only one seeking her affections. There is also the despicable Jehan Frollo (played by Brandon Hurst), Claude’s brother. Nothing – not kidnap, not murder, not the uprooting of all of Paris – will stop Jehan from getting Esmeralda. He even stoops to using Quasimodo for his schemes, which quickly gets the dweller of Notre Dame captured by the authorities and whipped mercilessly.
There’s also a subplot having to do with Esmeralda’s father, who lives in a section of the city occupied by the worst of the worst of Paris. He’s fed up with his class of people being treated as less than the upper elite and wishes to stage a revolution of sorts against those higher-ups.
It’s a thrilling tale but, as it is presented in this movie at least, not Quasimodo’s. The love story between Phoebus and Esmeralda carries the main weight of the story. Chaney’s part is reduced to a side character more than anything else, a shame considering Chaney stellar job in the role.
The makeup Chaney designed for Quasimodo in this film is bulking and thick. The actor never seems hindered by it, though. He’s light on his step and agile, well as agile as a man with such a dramatic back deformity is likely to be anyway. Quasimodo never lacks proper expression or emotion. A mere droop of Chaney’s mouth and the adjusting of some eyebrows is enough to get layers of emotion across.
One aspect of Chaney’s interpretation I particularly liked was the addition of anger. Quasimodo isn’t just a sad wretch. There’s a terrible passion present in the man, who resembles a child more he does an adult. He hates the people of Paris for rejecting him and treating him like dirt. At the same time, he doesn’t let these negative emotions over take him completely, and he still has hope for a better life with someone like Esmeralda. He has hope for a life inhabited by more than just utter loneliness.
That, to me at any rate, is the story of Quasimodo. It’s what I came into this movie planning to see. Maybe it was just my lack of proper familiarity with the tale or maybe it was the movie itself, but I didn’t get that here.
As is, Quasimodo is hardly in this movie, and when he is, he doesn’t often do much. There are only three scenes where I can remember Chaney’s character actually doing anything that affected the plot: when he tries to kidnap Esmeralda (on account of orders from Jehan to do so) at the beginning of the film, when he saves Esmeralda from the gallows, and the climax of the film, where he plays a big part.
The rest of the time, we just see him here and there, often doing little more than remind us he is in the movie. Sure, we see the sad life of Quasimodo and his final scene is poignant and effective, but I never felt like I really knew him as well as I should.
This is a awful loss. Chaney knocks the part out of the park, but is sadly given very little to do most of the time. We are instead left with the love story I mentioned early, which helps to underline the tragedy of Quasimodo but otherwise bored me.
And that’s how I felt throughout most of the film. Bored. There are good parts not including Chaney. The story of Esmeralda’s dad is interesting and, at the end of the picture, exciting and blood pumping. The supporting cast also does a credible job and their stories aren’t terrible, but none of them grabbed me enough to keep me interested. Alternatively, I kept being drawn to the sidelines, where Quasimodo unfairly stood waiting to be drawn into the spotlight. This sadly never occurs.
I hate to, it feels inappropriate to do during this blogathon celebrating this great silent actor, but I have to give this film a negative review. It just doesn’t hold my interest through most of the proceedings and it performs the cardinal sin of not using Chaney to his full potential.
If you like it, great. Chaney is certainly wonderful in it, and the sad tale of Quasimodo is undoubtedly powerful. I only wish the movie realized this and didn’t make us miss out on the brilliant story that could’ve been.