Film Legends Of Yesteryear (2019): 1939 on… The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (1939)

NOTE: This post was written and scheduled for today long before the recent fire at the Notre Dame cathedral.

Now we have yet another classic from 1939, this time being The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, starring Charles Laughton in the title role.

In the latter part of the fifteenth century, the king’s high justice, Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) has limited access to Paris for the gypsies by requiring them to have a permit to come into the city. Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) manages to get past the guards at the gates, but she is forced to take sanctuary in the church when they chase her. When Frollo follows, she escapes from the church, with Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) chasing after her under Frollo’s orders. He is captured by Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and sentenced to be whipped in the town square. Meanwhile, poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) has accidentally stumbled into the Court of Miracles, where he faces the threat of being hanged unless one of the women living there agrees to marry him. Esmeralda does, even though she loves Phoebus. In spite of the fact that he had chased her, she gives Quasimodo a drink of water while he is tied down on the pillory (unlike the crowd that was mocking him). Frollo, jealous of Phoebus, murders him, and, unable to face his own sin, blames Esmeralda and tries to have her hanged. However, at the last minute, Quasimodo swoops down to save her, and gets her back into the church, claiming sanctuary.

Now, before I get any further, I do have to admit that I have never read the original novel by Victor Hugo.  I have only seen this movie, the animated Disney film from the 1990s and the HEAVILY-shortened and heavily-sanitized-for-kids episode of the 90s PBS series Wishbone, so I’ll try to go off those and the current (at the time I am writing this) article for the novel on Wikipedia. This is a much darker version of the tale (although not as much as the novel, from what I gather), so anybody expecting this to be like the Disney film will be surprised. The 1939 film keeps the two Frollo brothers from the novel, but, partly due to the Hays Code at the time, makes the archdeacon Claude Frollo (the main antagonist of the novel) into a good guy, and changes Jehan from the alcoholic brother into the high justice and gives him many of Claude’s characteristics from the novel. Esmeralda is a bit younger here and a little more naive. Phoebus? Not such a nice guy, as we find that he is also lusting after Esmeralda, but, unlike Jehan, tries to act on it (only stopped by Jehan killing him in a fit of jealousy). Then, of course, we have Clopin (as played by character actor Thomas Mitchell in one of his five big roles in 1939), who is more of a cynic, and ends up leading the beggars against Notre Dame (instead of the king’s guard, as in the Disney film). Then there’s King Louis XI (Harry Davenport, who also played Dr. Meade in that year’s Gone With The Wind, but whom I will always remember as Judy Garland’s grandfather in Meet Me In St. Louis), who is a kindly king that is thinking of his subjects, and wants to see the new age of invention, as exemplified by the recent invention of the printing press. And, finally, we have Quasimodo himself, who is deaf due to the bells, as in the book (and possibly half-blind as well, given that one eye doesn’t move, although that can be attributed to the mask that actor Charles Laughton had to wear).

Still with me?  I’ll *try* to keep this short.  While I certainly enjoy the performances of all the actors here (and they are great performances, I think), part of what I enjoy with this movie is the SETS. Seriously, from what I’ve read, everything was built FOR THIS MOVIE on a ranch owned by RKO studios in the San Fernando Valley. For me, it just looks so wonderful, especially in HD (although, to be fair, I’ve never seen this movie in standard definition, either). But I do like this movie, even better than the Disney film. Admittedly, as a non-musical drama, I do need to be in more of a mood to watch this one, but I still enjoy it very much, and I very much recommend others try it out!

This movie is available individually on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video, and on Blu-ray as part of the five film Golden Year Collection.

Film Length: 1 hour, 57 minutes

My Rating: 9/10

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) – Charles Laughton – It Started With Eve (1941)

Maureen O’Hara – Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

George Tobias – Ninotchka (1939)

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