The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Directed by William Dieterle
Written by Sonya Levien

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a famous tale first brought to the world in the form of the novel by Victor Hugo. It has undergone multiple silver screen adaptations, including a quite endearing and magical version by Disney Animation Studios. But before that came the version released in 1930 starring Charles Laughton as the strange Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as the gypsy Esmeralda. Like most kids my age, the Disney version was all I knew of the story, but it is nice to discover a film like this which is so different not only because it is not a musical, but because it is also live-action and in black and white. Certainly this is just proof that such a tale is timeless.

Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is a recluse who lives in the bell tower of famed Paris cathedral Notre Dame. He is the bell master and a myth among people of Paris. No one has seen him, though they hear he is ugly. No one had seen him, that is until he is discovered by the dancing gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara), spying on her while she dances at a festival. He is then crowned the King of Fools at the festival, an honor Quasimodo, deaf by the bells he tends to, doesn’t quite understand. He thinks he is being embraced, not made fun of. Latter, he kidnaps Esmeralda, which turns the people even more against him. But when a murder occurs and Esmeralda is the number one suspect, Quasimodo provides refuge for her in his bell tower until the whole situation boils over in the finale.

The first thing that is noticed right off the bat, at least in relation to the Disney version of the story, is that this film is much more dramatic, serious and dark than Disney’s, which makes sense. The nature of the beast that is Quasimodo is much more terrifying and the job the filmmakers do on Charles Laughton is spectacular. The make up and everything else that went into making Laughton look like the hunchback is true movie magic.

In addition, Laughton gives a good performance in the role. There isn’t a whole lot to do with the character except look a bit forlorn and misunderstood, but when given the chance he does a good job. And I really liked Maureen O’Hara here as Esmeralda. First, she is one of those classic Hollywood beauties, and second she can act and proves it here. She plays the gypsy who is running from the authorities and dealing with both a struggle in finding religion and dealing with the admiration of the ignorant but endearing Quasimodo. Their relationship is really what makes the film work.

There are bits that are a bit cheesy or hokey, in particular the editing, especially during the festival in the beginning. But I will be darned if this movie isn’t just a bunch of fun. The film I immediately thought of was The Adventures of Robin Hood, and while it doesn’t near match up with the swashbuckling fun of that film, it does at least have the same feel and delivers, albeit inconsistently, the same type of Hollywood magic in that great Errol Flynn film and the Disney version.

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

One comment

  • Anyone else think the Disney version of Quasi was kind of cute? He kind of looks like a stuffed animal in that version! Just saying.

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