Paris, 1482, a city of nobility and slums ruled over by the cruel oppressor King Louis XI; his counterpart, the “king of the beggars,” is Clopin who presides over “the Court of Miracles,” the underworld of thieves and vagabonds, while at the centre of the city stands the cathedral of Notre Dame, home of the upstanding deacon Don Claudio, and looking down from the battlements upon them all, deaf from the bells and half blind yet seeing that which others do not, is Quasimodo.
Born with a twisted spine, shunned his whole life and grown to be despised, mocked and feared, Quasimodo is “the hunchback of Notre Dame” who, despite his lowly position, will be pulled into the power struggles of the city streets as Don Claudio’s lecherous brother Jehan and Captain Phoebus de Chateaupers of the King’s Guard compete for the affections of Esmeralda, the dancing teenage Roma girl who is the adopted daughter of Clopin.
A tragedy of cruelty, injustice and class division set ten years before Christopher Columbus “discovered” the New World, it was on the distant shores of that great continent that Universal Studios committed the then considerable sum of one and a quarter million dollars to make the fifth filmed adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre-Dame de Paris, a title referring to both the cathedral and the coveted Esmeralda, renaming it The Hunchback of Notre Dame in deference to star and uncredited producer Lon Chaney.
Premiered in September 1923, only weeks after the six-month shoot was completed by director Wallace Worsley, the film originally ran to almost two hours but was sadly cut before release and the footage lost; the extant version now presented on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration as part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema collection running to only one hundred minutes, it remains an undeniable spectacle of early cinematic achievement.
With 3,000 costumes constructed for 2,500 cast and extras, the monumental sets took up an area of nineteen acres, around the size of fifteen American football fields, recreating Paris with the conviction of realism rather than constructed artifice, the astonishing interiors and exteriors of the cathedral, the slums, the palace, the courthouse and the dungeons where Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) is sent, incarcerated by a judge led not by evidence but by false accusations and prejudice.
A prize to be fought over and largely passive, it is Esmeralda’s act of charity to Quasimodo when he is publicly whipped that brings the two of them together, yet until the final act he is also almost a peripheral character, witness to machinations driven by others with more to gain or lose, though Chaney’s physical performance is the one which makes The Hunchback of Notre Dame memorable, clambering across battlements, swinging from gargoyles and performing a rope descent to rescue Esmeralda from the mob, reciprocity for her earlier kindness.
Hugo’s novel published thirty years before he completed Les Misérables, the parallels between the two works are many, in setting, tone and themes, tragedies of the repressed forced to desperate actions by their situation, the valiant effort of screenwriters Edward T Lowe, Jr and Perley Poore Sheehan to translate the complexity of the novel using detailed intertitles to convey the characters and situations more frequently than other films of a similar vintage.
Eureka’s new edition featuring a soundtrack by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum and Laura Karpman whose leitmotif recalls Greensleeves, there is also a commentary by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman and two supporting interviews, Newman discussing the novel and its many varied adaptations, a subject so vast he actually refers to his written notes, and Jonathan Rigby on the production and reception and Chaney’s involvement in the film and his wider career.