DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, THE (director: William Dieterle; screenwriters: Sonia Levien/Bruno Frank/from the novel Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo; cinematographer: Joseph H. August; editors: Robert Wise/William Hamilton; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Charles Laughton (Quasimodo, the bell ringer), Cedric Hardwicke (Jean Frollo, Chief Justice of Paris), Maureen O'Hara (Esmeralda, a gypsy), Edmond O'Brien (Pierre Gringoire, poet), Harry Davenport (Louis XI, King of France), Thomas Mitchell (Clopin, King of Beggars), Walter Hampden (Claude Frollo, Archbishop of Paris), Alan Marshal (Captain Phoebus), Etienne Girardot (Doctor), Mina Gombell (Queen of Beggars), George Zucco (Procurator), Fritz Leiber (Old nobleman); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; RKO; 1939)

 
"Laughton gives an unforgettable haunting performance."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Hollywood at its best. It was RKO's big budget (more than $2 million) period drama that was its most successful film that year in both critical acclaim and box office. It's a sensitive and earnest adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel that provides a good mix of history and horror while it tells the story of a deformed bell-ringer, the deaf and hunchbacked Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), and his love for a beautiful gypsy woman named Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara, her first starring role at 19) amidst the turmoil in medieval France under King Louis XI (Harry Davenport). 

Under the direction of the German-born William Dieterle ("All That Money Can Buy"/"The Devil and Daniel Webster"/"Love Letters") the black-and-white film conveys a meticulous craftsmanship and a vivid sense of the grotesque, rich sets (designed by Van Nest Polglase) that are filled with elaborate pageantry and colorful mob scenes, interesting shadowy tracking shots by cinematographer Joseph H. August, and the most impressive characterizations of the ostracized Quasimodo. In writers Sonia Levien and Bruno Frank updated version, the gypsy persecutions allowed by the monarchy are compared to the current persecutions taken place for the Jews under the Holocaust. There have been many versions of the Hugo novel, but this 1939 one easily tops its closest competition--the formidable Lon Chaney silent version of 1923. Laughton gives an unforgettable haunting performance (though it's debatable if it was better than Chaney's more physical one), and the fine ensemble cast chips in with weighty performances--especially Cedric Hardwicke as the murderous repressed villain. 

France in the fifteenth century just at the end of the Hundred Years War is depicted as wracked with ignorance, cruelty and superstition. Even though the king is a kindly figure and a modern thinking man, he's surrounded by reactionaries and his regime is an intolerant one. Count Jean Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke), the King's high justice, opposes progress and any kind of reform; he would like to see the printing press destroyed because it will encourage the masses to think for themselves, but is overruled by the liberal king. 

The king's policy is not to allow gypsies to enter the walled city of Paris, but Esmeralda, the gypsy, sneaks in for the Festival of Fools street celebration. The poet Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien) presents his street play about bringing truth and beauty to the ignorant rabble, but it's broken up by the leader of the beggars, Clopin (Thomas Mitchell), and his unruly followers. When spotted by the King's soldiers, the gypsy street dancer Esmeralda avoids arrest by seeking sanctuary in the church of Notre Dame. The despotic Frollo's kindly brother Claude is the Archbishop of Paris (Walter Hampden); he assigns the grotesque hunchback Quasimodo to be Esmeralda's protector. But she's frightened by his appearance and escapes to the underworld of Clopin and his beggars. The activist poet Gringoire is hunted by Count Frollo and seeks shelter with the beggars, but when he runs afoul of their ideas they decide to kill him. In a gesture of compassion, Esmeralda marries the poet in order to save his life even though she's smitten with the Captain of the Guards, Phoebus (Alan Marshal), whom she secretly meets in a tryst. The hypocritical Frollo secretly lusts for the gypsy woman and in a fit of jealousy kills Phoebus, after seeing them together. Esmeralda is framed for the murder by Frollo and is forced to confess after being tortured, and is set to die on the gallows until Quasimodo leaps from the building above (thanks to the stunt man) and carries her to the sanctuary of the church. The Hitler-like Frollo stirs the nobles with hatred and they allow the army to enter the church to break the unwritten law on sanctuary; but the beggars, trying to protect Esmeralda, storm the church and are prepared to fight. When Frollo enters the church, Quasimodo hurls him to his death from the bell tower and street justice is served.

REVIEWED ON 6/28/2006        GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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