The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)


  • directed by William Dieterle
  • starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, Edmond O’Brien, Alan Marshal, Walter Hampden, Harry Davenport
  • In 15th century France, a gypsy girl is framed for murder by the infatuated Chief Justice, and only the deformed bellringer of Notre Dame Cathedral can save her.

“Why was I not made of stone – like thee? “

Unfortunately the copy that I had to watch had awful sound quality. The church bells and the score were deafeningly loud, while during many scenes I had to submit to not hearing the dialogue unless I put my face up to the television. Not a complete waste as I came into this version generally familiar with the Victor Hugo story and was given a boost from Dieterle’s grand scope and visuals.

I mainly put this one on the list because I wanted to see Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara’s take on the two iconic roles, but I was surprised to be so swept up in what was an exhaustive and obviously expensive production by RKO. The studio went on record as wanting to blow the silent 1923 Lon Chaney version out of the water. In terms of the film’s legacy, it appears as if they succeeded in producing the ultimate depiction of Quasimodo and Esmerelda, two characters that ultimately save each other from a Paris that’s violently caught between its history and its potential.

Laughton did a commendable job especially under such apparent discomfort from his makeup and prosthetics. He gave Quasimodo a subdued mix of shame and wonder and was especially effective during the public whipping sequence. From his facial reactions alone you wonder if he understands the circumstances that led to his punishment, or, more basic, does he even understand the concept of pain? Laughton’s other great service was recommending (maybe demanding) O’Hara for this film after they worked together on Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, and it was her performance as Esmerelda that set what would be a great career in motion. Even when not in captivity or being tortured, Esmerelda is never at ease as an unwanted gypsy in Paris, but O’Hara injects a lot of grace and beauty into such a fearful and hopeful existence. Great supporting performances from Cedric Hardwicke as the thoroughly creepy Frollo and Thomas Mitchell who was easy to recognize from Stagecoach and somebody I now love for his top-notch character work.


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all the things I should have seen

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