(director: Wallace Worsley; screenwriters: from the novel “Notre Dame de Paris” by Victor Hugo/Edward T. Lowe Jr.; cinematographers: Robert Newhard/Tony Kornman; editors: Edward Curtis/Maurice Pivar/Sydney Singerman; music: Donald Hunsburger; cast: Lon Chaney (Quasimodo), Ernest Torrance (Clopin), Patsy Ruth Miller (Esmeralda), Norman Kerry (Phoebus), Kate Lester (Madame de Gondelaurier), Tully Marshall (King Louis XI), Nigel de Brulier (Don Claudio), Brandon Hurst (Jehan), Winifred Bryson (Fleur de Lys), Raymond Hatton (Gringoire), Roy Laidlaw (Charmolu); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Carl Laemmle; TCM; 1923-silent)

“It opened at Carnegie Hall instead of a regular movie house, marking it as more than a movie–an event.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is based on the 1831 novel “Notre Dame de Paris” by Victor Hugo. This early film spectacle made a major star out of Lon Chaney, who played Quasimodo with relish. He was the deformed, deaf, half-blind and simple-minded bell ringer of Notre Dame. Chaney spent three hours a day applying his own makeup for the role (applying cotton and a special device to make his cheeks protrude grotesquely, nose putty for warts, a contact lens for blacking out one of his eyes, and placing on his back a huge rubber hump with a harness that weighed close to 50 pounds). Universal’s lavish production (big sets and thousands of extras), which took six months to film, does a great job of recreating the 16th century walled city of Paris. It paid off in the box office, as it became one of Universal’s biggest box office draws of the 1920s.

It opened at Carnegie Hall instead of a regular movie house, marking it as more than a movie–an event. Previous versions included the following: a 1905 short called “Esmeralda,” that was directed by pioneering female director Alice Guy; the Theda Bara 1917 one called “The Darling of Paris” and a 1922 British film also titled “Esmeralda” starring Booth Conway and Sybil Thorndike. Wallace Worsley (“Grand Larceny”/”Rags to Riches”/”Nobody’s Money”) weakly directs this bowdlerized version (not wanting to offend the Catholic Church it switched evil characters from the Hugo novel by making the church archdeacon, Don Claudio, a saint in the film when he was the devil in the book and his brother Jehan, who was a minor character in the book abetting his brother in crimes, now becomes an evil businessman and the main villain fomenting dissension).

Irving Thalberg, the 22-year-old new production head at Universal, was the “Boy Wonder” mastermind behind the project, who got it greenlighted by Universal studio head Carl Laemmle. Most critics cite the 1939 Charles Laughton version that was directed by William Dieterle as their favorite (which is also mine), nevertheless Chaney’s Quasimodo remains the definitive one despite the film’s other lesser qualities in its film-making (like not drawing out suspense in almost every action scene and not clearing up necessary details of some of its lead characters).

The hunchback Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) is crowned King of the Fools on festival day, a dubious honor bestowed on Paris’s ugliest citizen. Meanwhile the so-called King of the Beggars, Clopin (Ernest Torrence), is agitating to overthrow the aristocrats and has his thieves and fake beggars mingle in the crowd while his adopted gypsy daughter Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), whom he purchased from gypsies who kidnapped her from a noblewoman, entertains the crowd with her dancing to keep them occupied while his plan of attack goes into effect. Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the saintly Notre Dame archdeacon Dom Claude (Nigel De Brulier), craves to possess Esmeralda and orders his slave Quasimodo to kidnap the sexy gypsy. Quasimodo is captured and flogged in the public square for his crime, whereupon Esmeralda, in act of kindness, brings him water and he falls in love with her. When the jealous Jehan sees Esmeralda kissing her aristocratic lover, the captain of the guards, Phoebus (Norman Kerry), he stabs him and frames Esmeralda for the crime, figuring if he can’t have her, no one can. She’s sentenced to be hanged but Quasimodo reciprocates her favor by rescuing her from the King’s guards, as he slides down the front of the church by rope (using a stunt man double) and carries her to safety in the church. Even though both the King and the mob want Esmeralda, Quasimodo refuses to let either side take her as he defends both Esmeralda and the church by throwing down upon them heavy objects, molten lead and stones. When the hunchback sees Jehan trying to kidnap Esmeralda, he chokes him and tosses him over the church to his demise. But Quasimodo becomes heartbroken when he sees that Phoebus wasn’t killed after all and is now embracing the woman he loves, even though not lifting a finger beforehand to clear her name. This is too much for the simpleton, who takes his own life.

The negative and all prints from the silent epic of the 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame are lost. What exists of the film today comes from 16mm prints that Universal sold to private collectors. David Shepard, owner of the Blackhawk Films library, restored the film as best he could to come up with this good-looking version of a nearly lost film classic (that’s of historical importance to cinema).