THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939)
This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. Today's star is Maureen O'Hara.
After the recent Notre Dame fire, many people went back to both the Victor Hugo novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the many film versions of it (at least four versions so far). The 1939 remake came at what is considered Hollywood's greatest year, and the film more than lives up to that lofty statement. While a bit long The Hunchback of Notre Dame is very well worth it, and may be an allegory on its troubled times.
During the reign of Louis XI (Harry Davenport), there is persecution of the Gypsies. In particular, His Majesty's Chief Justice of Paris, Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) opposes both the Gypsies and the newly-invented printing press, seeing both as dangerous. However, on this Fools' Day, the Parisians are too much into revelry to note either the poetic musings of Gringiore (Edmund O'Brien) or the beautiful Gypsy girl Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara). They do, however, shiver at the sight of Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), the notorious Hunchback whom they declare King of Fools.
Frollo, who is Quasimodo's guardian, is appalled by all this, but at least when it comes to Esmeralda he is powerless as she has unwittingly gone to into Notre Dame and thus acquired sanctuary from arrest. Gringoire is in love with her, but she has eyes on a Captain and Frollo now desires her. The complicated love lives of them lead them to the "Kingdom of Beggars", where Clopin (Thomas Mitchell) rules his literal den of thieves. Circumstances join Esmeralda and Gringiore, but Frollo won't be denied.
There's murder and false accusations against this "witch", but just when all is dire Quasimodo literally sweeps in to save her, claiming "SANCTUARY! SANCTUARY!" within the halls of the holy site. A crisis emerges as to the power of the Church, the State and the Mob all colliding as a result of Esmeralda's predicament. Things come to a head when the various groups clash at the steps of the cathedral, with everyone unaware of the entire truth. All things, however, end joyfully, save for Quasimodo, who ends up alone.
It's a testament to the longevity of the film that when we think of Quasimodo, it is usually the Laughton version that comes to mind. Surprisingly, Quasimodo does not play a large part in The Hunchback of Notre Dame until past the midpoint. Most of the film is really about Esmeralda, brilliantly played by O'Hara in an early role. She brings a beauty and innocence to the role, a woman who embraces all the new worlds of thought and faith and romance.
There are some breathtakingly beautiful scenes, such as Esmeralda worshiping at the statue of the Virgin Mary, making her embrace of Catholicism true and pure. O'Hara draws the viewer towards her whenever she's on screen, and she gives a rich performance as our Gypsy girl.
She is counterbalanced by Hardwicke, who is evil itself as Frollo. The censors forced changes to the plot such as the happy ending and Frollo now being the brother to the Archbishop rather than the Archbishop himself, but unless you are a purist you do not notice as the film works quite well with the changes. In his sternness, his hostility mixed with desire, Hardwicke is frightening and malevolent, making his performance quite effective.
In other roles, Edmund O'Brien brings that youthful optimism as our wise poet, and is surprisingly handsome and dashing. Mitchell had a banner year in 1939, showing an exceptional range. Here, he is rough and roguish but not without a bit of mirth and caring as Clopin, leader of the oppressed. Couple that with his wealthy plantation owner in Gone With the Wind and his Oscar-winning role as the drunken doctor in Stagecoach and it is a marvel that more people don't know his name. Davenport brings a strong bit of humor as the honest but slightly dotty Louis XI.
As for Laughton, he does not speak for most of the film, letting his body and makeup work speak for him. However, Laughton makes Quasimodo into a figure of pathos and sympathy, showing that beating heart behind the frightening visage. I think most caricatures of Laughton as the Hunchback are exaggerated, but he does a magnificent job in a surprisingly small role.
It may not have been intended as such, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame may have been commentary on the rise of Fascism and Nazism. Frollo's almost fanatical hatred for Gypsies and the idea that men can freely express themselves is eerie in its similarity with what the world was seeing at the time of the film's release. Moreover, Frollo too wanted the Gypsies persecuted and exterminated, demolishing the free press and determined to hold power.
The climatic battle at the cathedral is exceptionally well-crafted, and the Fools Day festivities are lavish.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is really well-acted all around. It felt a bit too long for me, but on the whole it holds up extremely well and is a fine film.