June 8, 2024

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
Grade: 90/100

Director: William Dieterle
Stars: Charles Laughton, Maureen O'Hara, Edmond O'Brien

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an outstanding adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel, set in fifteenth century France. One of the biggest budget films of its era, the sets are imposing, the cast is first rate, the plot moves quickly, and the script is excellent.

Charles Laughton is the Hunchback, deformed but spry and intelligent. He is a bellringer at the cathedral of Notre Dame. He falls in love with young gypsy Maureen O'Hara (then only nineteen), who is initially terrified of him. Also in love with O'Hara is energetic poet/playwright Edmund O'Brien (in his film debut) and the Hunchback's father figure, brooding Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke). Other characters include the King of France (Harry Davenport) and the King of Thieves (Thomas Mitchell).

Current psychoanalytic theory has the Hunchback as the physical incarnation of the tormented, obsessive mind of Frollo, as in Forbidden Planet (1956). But the Hunchback is not the monster that he is considered to be.

This was the first version of the story to be made during the sound era. A spectacular silent version had been filmed in 1923 starring Lon Chaney. If anything, the 1939 version is an even larger production, with an enormous cast of extras in many scenes. The Notre Dame cathedral is an impressive series of sets: the steps and entrance, the winding stairways to the gigantic bells, and the rooftop from which the Hunchback battles an angry mob.

Davenport is a little-known supporting actor, but he had key roles in three of the best films from the 1930s: Gone With the Wind, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and The Life of Emile Zola. His King Louis is gentle and open-minded, and France would still have a King today if they were all like him.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was not particularly well received in 1939. Perhaps this was because of its heavy competition from other outstanding films in that landmark year (Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Wuthering Heights, among many others). Another explanation was that contemporary audiences had exaggerated the quality of the older Chaney film, erroneously considering that to be the definite version.

It is virtually impossible to say anything bad about this film. True, the plot moves so quickly that the film has a serial feel. The acting (especially O'Brien) is a bit hammy at times, and it is difficult to believe that a gypsy woman could be the cause of so much chaos.

But when a film is so entertaining and spectacular, all is forgiven. There are many rewarding moments, especially when the Hunchback swoops O'Hara off to Notre Dame, hoists her prone body over his head and cries "Sanctuary" to the enormous, approving crowd. Now that is cinema!