*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Visually, Wallace Worsley's adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' is
stunning: the lavish sets are atmospheric; the costumes, while not
always historically accurate, are attractive; and the film is lively
and well-shot, with (on the whole) an excellent cast. It could have
been a superb early Hollywood epic. Unfortunately, the script was
maimed by censorship, which set the tone for subsequent US attempts to
film Hugo's spectacular novel of 15C Paris. *Some spoilers follow, as I
wish to compare the book and the film.*
The title itself reflects part of the problem. Despite Victor Hugo's disapproval, since 1832, many popular English-language translations of 'Notre Dame de Paris' have appeared under the 'Hunchback' title, promoting the supporting character of Quasimodo to the leading role. The NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', which prefigured the Hays Code, further fuelled this change of narrative focus. They prohibited the depiction of the clergy in ways that might provoke hostility or loss of respect: a huge obstacle in adapting this novel, which centres upon Claude Frollo, a brilliant young priest who destroys himself and all he loves because he can no longer cope with his vow of celibacy. Other characters were also problematic for the censors: Esméralda's long-lost mother is a penitent former prostitute; the teenaged student Jehan is a drunkard and frequenter of brothels; Phbus is a rake who takes Esméralda to a sleazy 'house of assignation' and almost succeeds in seducing her indeed, she plasters herself over him more or less begging him to take her! How could the book be sanitised for filming under NAMPI rules?
The script retains Claude Frollo's identity as Archdeacon, but makes him remain the sweet, saintly adoptive father of the deformed foundling Quasimodo. It transfers his passion for Esméralda and his alchemy to his secular brother, Jehan a spoilt and dissolute undergraduate in the book, but here a middle-aged villain, in league with the king of the underworld, Clopin. Without the psychological conflict over religious vows, the 'thwarted desire' plot loses meaning and intensity. It becomes just another story in which a man ruthlessly pursues a girl who loves someone else. It also wastes the talents of the British actor Nigel de Brulier, whose ascetically handsome features make him one of the best film-Claudes in looks. He could have played Hugo's Claude magnificently, judging by his performance as the prophet Jokanaan, tormented by another provocative teenaged dancer in Alla Nazimova's film of Oscar Wilde's 'Salomé'. Instead, all he has to do is look pious in a cassock. Film-Jehan (Brandon Hurst) is merely a moustache-twirling melodrama villain, or would be, if he had a moustache!
The moustache, however, in one of Hugo's more egregious anachronisms, belongs to Phbus de Châteaupers (Norman Kerry), whom the script cleans up to be a conventional romantic lead (a decision copied by Disney in 1996). Yes, he tries to seduce Esméralda (the delightful Patsy Ruth Miller young, carefree and charming), but here she resists, and he is won over by her virtue. The film also invents a Cinderella-type scene where she goes to a ball, dressed up as a lady, and captures his heart from his aristocratic fiancée Fleur-de-Lys. And of course, despite the various trials and tribulations, they will be rewarded with a happy ending. Pierre Gringoire's role is minimised to that of occasional comic relief: a pity, as he is great fun when he is on screen. Pâquette/Sister Gudule, Esméralda's mother, makes her only Hollywood appearance in this adaptation, in sanitised form, played by Gladys Brockwell. In flashback, we see her as a wealthy lady (presumably a widow) in a grand house, not as the impoverished young prostitute of the novel. Her death is placed earlier than in the novel and in somewhat different circumstances. The script bungles the drama of the belated recognition and reconciliation between mother and daughter: here, Pâquette recognises her child, then dies but Esméralda apparently remains none the wiser. Poignant though this is, it seems an odd anti-climax: did this plot-element seem too melodramatic even for 1920s audiences?
These days, the reputation of the film rests chiefly on being a star-vehicle for Lon Chaney as Quasimodo much overrated, I thought. His make-up was certainly elaborate by the standards of the time indeed, too extravagant to be convincing. Quasimodo is a twenty-year-old boy with severe disabilities: he is not a human-ape hybrid, which is what Chaney (wearing an alarming amount of false body-hair during the flogging scene) appears to be playing. In a cinematic reversal of evolution, he is more like an ancestor of King Kong: just swap the Gothic towers of Notre Dame for the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building. The ending, too, prefigures that of the great ape film: the heroic 'monster' is killed off so that the physically attractive young lovers can be reconciled. It's certainly not Victor Hugo! Indeed, having Quasimodo expire in the arms of his adoptive father, Claude, so far overturns the tragic climax of the novel that it belongs in an entirely alternative universe.
Without the distortions of narrative and character imposed by censorship, the talents assembled here could have made a wonderful film. Sadly, the NAMPI restrictions left it picturesque but stunted and deformed much like Quasimodo himself.
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