The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) Poster

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The peak of art in Hollywood cinema
jeffbertucen@hotmail.com12 December 2002
A sweeping claim? Perhaps. But despite the presence in Hollywood over sixty subsequent years of Ford, Wyler, Kubrick, Coppola, Scorsese et al, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains as fresh, as emotionally resonant and yes as powerfully artistic as the day it was made. What constitutes 'art' is of course a personal matter, just as the Breughel-like compositions of Hunchback might be as mystifying to someone whose favourite film is A Clockwork Orange (Lichtenstein?). But what makes Hunchback so satisfying as art is precisely that its makers didn't set out with art in mind. Dieterle and his co-creators embarked on the project with the aim of telling a great yarn, making it look authentic, and above all ENTERTAINING the audience. It is to this end that the Grand Guignol excesses of the novel were trimmed or altered, and the Hollywood bittersweet ending imposed. Audiences filed out with their Kleenex in hand having witnessed a three-ring circus of a movie, then went home to read the war-soaked newspapers.

Virtually every frame of this movie could be taken in isolation, made into a poster and hung on a wall. Examples include Gringoire cradling the dying Clopin as a rivulet of lead trickles past in the background, the voyeuristic eye of Quasimodo peering through fence palings at the dancing Esmeralda - I could go on and on. And pervading it all is the magnificent score of Alfred Newman, surely his finest ever.

Rather than sing its obvious praises, the film can simply speak for itself. As narrative, as character, as cinema craft, it is totally successful throughout. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my favourite film of all time, bar none. Ten out of ten
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Notre Dame's Celebrated Bell Ringer
bkoganbing30 August 2006
Though the French have done many versions of Victor Hugo's celebrated classic, this version starring Charles Laughton has certainly stood the test of time and is the best known and loved in the English speaking world.

Lon Chaney, Sr. did an acclaimed silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Laughton was following a great tradition. And he did it in the manner of Chaney, almost without dialog. Not that Hugo wrote too much dialog for Quasimodo in his story, but except for his time with Esmerelda in the tower after he rescues her, Laughton is almost speechless in the film. Of course his character in addition to being deformed is also deaf from the ringing of those cathedral bells.

Quasimodo born deformed as he was, was left as an orphan on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral in medieval Paris. Raised in the sheltered atmosphere of the church, he derives some joy in his duties as the bell ringer in the tower. His mentor is the brother of the archbishop played by Cedric Hardwicke and the archbishop is Walter Hampden. Quasimodo's life is useful, but without love.

But Laughton is crushing out on Esmerelda the gypsy girl played by Maureen O'Hara in her American screen debut. Problem is that Hardwicke is also getting hot and bothered by her.

Hardwicke's role is the second best acted in the film next to Laughton's. He's a man with shall we say some issues. He's purportedly committed to the church and it's celibacy requirements. But Dr. Freud wasn't around back in the day of Louis XI to tell us about sex drives. Hardwicke's desires mean only one thing, Esmerelda has to have bewitched him. When he kills Alan Marshal who is also interested in Maureen and looks like he's about to round third so to speak, the blame goes on Maureen.

What I like about the story is how the lives of two very ordinary people, Quasimodo and Esmerelda, become the focal point for a whole lot of religious and political issues of the day. The church, the peasants, the just developing middle class, and the nobility all have an agenda as far as the Esmerelda murder case is going. The only agenda poor Quasimodo has is he's in love with her.

Maureen O'Hara who was a discovery of Charles Laughton back in the United Kingdom was pushed by Laughton for the role of Esmerelda and traveled with him to America to play the part. She was grateful to him ever afterwards for any career she had and can't praise him enough for getting RKO to sign her.

Harry Davenport probably plays the most benign Louis XI ever put on film. It sure is a far cry from Basil Rathbone in If I Were King or Robert Morley in Quentin Durward. He plays him like the kindly grandfather he usually plays on screen.

Thomas Mitchell as Clopin the king of beggars and Edmond O'Brien as Gringoire the poet are two other significant roles. O'Brien gets his first substantial role on screen in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and this was a banner year for Thomas Mitchell. In 1939 he was also in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone With the Wind and Stagecoach for which he won Best Supporting Actor. He could have though for any one of these films.

When all is said and done though the film belongs to Charles Laughton who was the screen's best portrayer of tortured humanity. Even beneath all of Bud Westmore's grotesque make-up we can feel his anguish. He's not a stupid man Quasimodo, he knows how repulsive he is to most of the human race. He's childlike though, something like Peter Sellers in Being There, another character raised in a secluded atmosphere.

To see Charles Laughton at the top of his game in my humble opinion one has to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
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Heartbreaking Novel
Claudio Carvalho21 October 2011
In the end of Fifteenth Century, in the Feast of Fools in Paris, the deformed bell ringer Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is elected the King of Fools. The gorgeous gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) does not have the necessary permit to stay in Paris and seeks sanctuary in the Notre Dame with the Archbishop of Paris. His brother, the Chief of Justice Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), has a repressed lust for the gypsy dancer and tries to force Esmeralda to go with him to the tower of the Cathedral. However she flees and Frollo orders Quasimodo to abduct the beautiful youngster.

Quasimodo catches her but she is rescued by Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and feels a crush on him. Quasimodo is arrested and sentenced to be whipped in the square of Notre Dame. When he begs for water, Esmeralda is the only person that gives water to him. Meanwhile Esmeralda helps the poet Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) that was going to be hanged by the King of the Beggars, accepting to marry Gringoire to save him from the gallows.

Esmeralda flirts with Captain Phoebus in a party and he is stabbed on his back by the jealous Frollo. Esmeralda takes the blame and is sentenced to the gallows. But Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda and brings her to the sanctuary of Notre Dame and expresses his love for the gypsy. Meanwhile a fight of classes between the nobles led by Frollo that want to hang Esmeralda, and the people, led by the beggars, gypsies and poets that want to protect the woman takes place.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is one of the cruelest romances of the literature and cinema history in a dark age in France. The author of "Les Misérables", Victor Hugo, writes another heartbreaking novel, describing the fight of classes in the French society in the end of the Middle Ages. In this version of this sad tale of injustice, Charles Laughton is awesome with a memorable performance and Maureen O'Hara is very beautiful in the role of the seductive gypsy. My vote is eight.

Title (Brazil): "O Corcunda de Notre Dame" ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame")
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I wish Hugo could have seen it.
dbdumonteil14 June 2002
The ending differs from Hugo's novel,but I guess it was necessary to bestow on the audiences a de rigueur happy end when the world situation was getting worse and worse.It' s also dubious that king Louis XI -who died in 1483- might have been aware of Christophe Colomb's plans ,because the latter only informed the king of Portugal-who refused to put up the money for his expedition- in ...1484!

These are minor squabbles.Because this movie is definitely the finest version of Hugo's classic ,much superior to the French one ,directed by Jean Delannoy(1956) with Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida.Dieterle's work is a feast for the eyes with numerous classic scenes ,very clever dialogue,superlative performances and complete mastery of the camera.

The opening-Louis XI visiting a printing house-sums up the turning of history:Gutenberg's invention will allow the knowledge and as the King watches the cathedrals ,he makes us feel that these books of stone are fast becoming a thing of the past.The Middle Ages are coming to an end,but a lot of people ,particularly the clergy do not want to lose the power they have on the populace.When Frollo sentences Esmeralda to death,because of his sexual desire,he puts the blame on the devil.He's a man of the past,diametrically opposite to Gringoire,who epitomizes modernity,and who understands the power of the pamphlet which the printing increases tenfold.

Charles Laughton is by far the best Quasimodo that can be seen on a screen:he's so extraordinary that he almost turns the happy end into a tragedy!He gets good support from a moving and extremely beautiful O'Hara as Esmeralda and from Harwicke as Frollo.

Peaks:the fools day,the cour des miracles -maybe showing some influence by Browning's "freaks"-,all the scenes in the cathedral.Dieterle is on par with the most demanding directors all along his movie:the movements in the crowd are stunning,breathtaking,often filmed from the church towers.Humor is not absent either:Gregoire's eventful night in the cour des Miracles is colorful and funny and scary all at once.

A monument,like the cathedral itself.
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A small masterpiece, projecting love of the fantastic, the mystical, and the grotesque...
Nazi_Fighter_David20 August 2000
Warning: Spoilers
The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is shrouded in romance, myth, mystery and intrigue... Throughout the ages, poets and writers have drawn inspiration from her splendor... Generations have found both wonder and terror in the gargoyles that appear menacingly from her thin structures...

Hailed by critics as the most important of French Romantic writers, Victor Hugo invented his own version of the historical novel, combining the local color and historical detail of Honoré de Balzac and the spiritual lecture of George Sand..

The film, set in 15th century medieval period, tells a moving story of a Gypsy girl Esmeralda who comes to Paris to intercede with the King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) for her people... While there, she earns her living as a dancer arising passion in the Chief Justice of Paris, Jean Frollo, a sinister priest, who discovers that she favors Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal).

Frollo sends the deformed bell-ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, Quasimodo, to kidnap her... Esmeralda is rescued by the captain of the guard who is later stabbed by Frollo with the blame being thrust on her...

Under torture, she confesses to the crime and is sentenced to be hung... But she is saved by the hunchback who attempts to shelter her in the cathedral...

Much of the rich atmosphere is concretely seen in this version: The persecution of Gypsies; the happy Festival of the Fools; the conclave of thieves and beggars in the Court of Miracles; the punishment of Quasimodo; the Cathedral and its role as the center of medieval Paris... The highest dramatic moment of the film comes when Clopin (Thomas Mitchell) calls upon his half-starved mob to attack the fortified cathedral and rescue Esmeralda...

Charles Laughton is cast as Quasimodo, Hugo's extremely disfigured man... Quasimodo is a monstrous 'King of Fools' with inner beauty, strength and nobility... He is deaf for the sound of the bells he loves... In this distorted body with ugly face, there is lot of humanity, kindness and gratitude...

Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays the privileged arch villain Jean Frollo, who controls medieval France... He is an ambitious priest who resists the force of political change against the church... He is a man with emotion and passion, blinded by a false light, obsessed, confused and tormented by a lustful desire...

Maureen O'Hara plays the enchanting Esmeralda, a young naive Gypsy dancer, innocent and pure...

Edmond O'Brien (in his film debut) plays an impertinent dreamer who arouses laughter and amusement with his adventures in the Court of Miracles...

Harry Davenport plays a fascinated King, happy to live in an age of great beginnings, determined to take his bath twice a year...

William Dieterle's film is a small masterpiece, projecting deep feeling for the human soul, love of the fantastic, the mystical and the grotesque...
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One of the best Hollywood movies ever
galensaysyes7 February 2003
This was my favorite movie as a kid, from the first time I saw it on TV in the third grade. The look and the atmosphere of it have lodged ineradicably in a corner of my mind ever since, and the rescue of Esmeralda from the gibbet was and probably still is my favorite scene in a Hollywood movie. I never got to see the movie theatrically until a few years ago, when Disney hosted a showing as an excuse to preview clips of its animated version (which is based on this movie more than on the novel). The movie probably played as strongly then as it had fifty years earlier, and I have no doubt it will play the same in another fifty years. Seeing it with an audience made me realize for the first time that it is Sir Cedric Hardwicke's movie, rather than Laughton's. He dominates the story, and commands the screen whenever he appears. Since the Hays Office prohibited showing a lubricious priest, the writers did something clever: they changed the character into Javert from Hugo's "Les Miserables," here promoted to chief prosecutor, and a hypocritically high-minded celibate: as Esmeralda puts it, he seems like a priest without being one. Hardwicke's performance is superbly subtle, and his character must be one of the most intimately despicable movie villains of all time. Laughton is terrific. too; his cadences on lines like "She gave me a drink of water" are classic. (When Mandy Patinkin played the part, he himself admitted that he was simply replaying Laughton's score and hoping he'd be able to hit all the notes.) As for Maureen O'Hara, if I came across a gypsy dancer like her I'd be moved to swing into the square and rescue her myself. And how can anyone not like Thomas Mitchell's beggar king? The only substantial fault in the playing, I think, is Harry Davenport's characterization of Louis XI, which is funny but more broadly written and played than what surrounds it.

Strangely, although this is more a horror film than the other versions of the novel and contains many frightening scenes, I never thought of it as belonging to that genre and I still don't. It's much more than that. I knew someone who called it Hollywood's finest hour; he can't have been far wrong.
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The best of the myriad different film versions of a most excellent novel
Robert Reynolds9 January 2001
The best of the many versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, for my money, is this one, although Lon Chaney's is a close second. Despite a Hollywood tendancy to change the novel's ending so as not to depress the cash customers (although, pray tell, if you're going to change the ending, why does no one ever see Quasimodo sailing off to Tahiti with the girl? Rule # 1: strong, handsome poets beat out disfigured cripples every time, even if they're heroes. This is more true in real life than in the movies. Take my word for this, I know from painful experience *sigh*)

Charles Laughton is exceptional and Maureen O'Hara would make any man swoon and is perfect for the part of Esmerelda. The support includes the usual suspects-Thomas Mitchell, Harry Davenport and many other familiar character actors. Strike up the band and start the parade. Thunderous applause. Most highly recommended.
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A Fine Adaptation With Laughton, O'Hara, & More
Snow Leopard5 October 2004
Charles Laughton's boisterous portrayal of Quasimodo and Maureen O'Hara's charm as Esmerelda are two of the things that make this version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" a fine production that still works very well. Most of the versions of the story have been at least watchable, because the Victor Hugo novel provides so much good material to work with, much of it well-suited for cinema. This adaptation, though, is one of the best at making good use of what it offers.

It's interesting to compare this picture with the 1923 Lon Chaney version - not for the sake of ranking them, since both are fully worthy of attention in their own right, but because they offer somewhat different strengths, and because they emphasize somewhat different aspects of the story.

Chaney and Laughton are both quite effective as Quasimodo, each giving an interpretation of the character that corresponds to the actor's skills. Laughton brings out Quasimodo's feelings and perspective quite well. In this version, for example, the flogging scene is longer and more detailed, and it is one of Laughton's most effective scenes. Chaney is particularly good at reacting to the other characters and their actions. Both give the character a distinctive and memorable look.

O'Hara is also one of this adaptation's strengths. Patsy Ruth Miller was good in the Chaney version, but O'Hara has the advantage of spoken dialogue, and she makes the character of Esmerelda her own.

While the Chaney version especially emphasized the atmosphere, this one has quite a bit of action. The tumultuous climactic sequences are done quite well, and they leave a vivid impression. Overall, this is a very satisfying adaptation of the fine classic novel.
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The Best Version as far as film goes
theowinthrop31 August 2006
Warning: Spoilers
1939 was a banner year for the movies - possibly the best year. With titles like STAGECOACH, GONE WITH THE WIND, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and GOODBYE MR. CHIPS it was the best year for the old sound film system of the big studios. Among the great films was this one - the second of two classic versions of the Victor Hugo novel (the 1923 silent version with Lon Chaney being the first).

Let us acknowledge that this version is the most fun and the one people turn to. It is reminiscent of the best known and liked version of LES MISERABLES (also a novel by Hugo) made by Paramount in 1935 and starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton. That Laughton should appear in both shows his remarkable versatility as Hollywood's greatest character actor of his period. Inspector Javert is as unsympathetic a figure as Quasimodo is a sympathetic one. It is true that the makeup on the unfortunate hunchback makes him initially a figure to pity, but his heroism rises in the movie (as it does in the novel) so that the reader never deserts him. The reader never feels that way about Inspector Javert.

This and JAMAICA INN were both made in 1939, and both paired Laughton and Maureen O'Hara. Here O'Hara's Esmaralda is both lovely and powerless, a gypsy hated for her background in superstitious and medieval France. Yet she is lusted after by so many. Forgetting the hunchback there are Phoebus, Gringoire, and (not least) Claude Frollo. Alan Marshall plays Captain Phoebus as the straw-man hero he is - he is strong and manly on the surface, but he is easily dismissed (particularly by the conniving villain). Edmond O'Brien is partly a comic figure - Hugo's way of poking fun at himself, perhaps, as he was a poet like Gringoire. But I doubt if Hugo ever yelled in disappointment for failing to be crowned "King of the Fools" for a festival.

Then there is Cedric Hardwicke's Frollo. Leslie Halliwell, in HALLIWELL'S HUNDRED, reviews the film and says it is Hardwicke's best performance. Perhaps (I'd opt for his father in the 1949 THE WINSLOW BOY first). He is a Machiavellian before the Italian political philosopher came upon the scene, busy pulling invisible wires from the church to control the country, the church, and the monarchy. But he is unaware of his Achilles' heel. A member of a celibate profession, he finds himself falling for a woman - and one from a despised and suspect group. Fighting his inclinations, but at the same time giving into them, he is the motivator of all the evil in the plot - not only against Esmeralda, but Quasimodo, and the citizens of Paris. His fate is as unlamented by the viewers as that of Javert was in LES MISERABLES.

Harry Davenport and Walter Hampden play King Louis XI of France and the archbishop of Paris (Frollo's brother). It was an early film role for the elderly Hampden, and he gives a good account for himself, but there really enough for himself until the conclusion, when coming to his senses he berates his brother (had Frollo not met his fate, he would have lost his power). Davenport is interesting. Usually playing kindly, lovable grandpas (MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is a fine example), he does not leave that image here. But as has been mentioned in another review of this film, Louis XI was an excellent King of France - clever and careful. But he was "the Spider King". Basil Rathbone's performance in IF I WERE KING two years earlier was closer to the mark. To be a "Spider King" one has to be devilishly ruthless, trapping enemies in webs. Davenport's kindly old codger King is not that way at all. I would also add that the performance of Thomas Mitchell as the King of Paris' beggars is equally good - a wise opportunist, who is unable to achieve what he wishes (the looting of the rich by his mob, signaled by their assault on the cathedral).

By now one can see that I like this film - it is a rousing entertainment, and emotionally quite fulfilling. But was it the novel? I will leave that for another review.
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Notre Dame and Laughton
charles-pope29 August 2004
Losy in the monatge of 1939 films ...somewhat is a film I believe is more enriching and florid than " Gone With The Wind" and possibly just as romantic as " Wuthering Heights"

Laughton's performance is one of the most astonishing put on film ever. A Stellar cast is in place from O' Hara to O' Brien..What can I say , Thomas Mitchell who probably graced more films than any other actor is superb.

Hugo,s timeless classic is brought to life in black and white and with sets that make you feel are there.

The great Cedric Hardwicke potrays the tormented one and for sure ..its 116 minutes of pure film making ..and it all takes place on fools day....

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"I'm about as shapeless as the man in the moon"
ackstasis21 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
The general public responds to the grotesque with a curious mixture of shock, fascination and repulsion. In the 15th century, where society was too ignorant to understand the consequences of deformity, men like Quasimodo were shunned from the community, and considered evil influences – as we approach modern times, it seems that people have changed little, as depicted in David Lynch's heartbreaking 'The Elephant Man (1980).' Despite the proud, if misguided, belief that humans judge each other based on their intelligence and personality, our basic primal instinct often proves dominant. Just as many recoil in horror at the misshapen features of the unfortunate Quasimodo, an entire audience is left entranced by the beautiful dancing body of Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara), momentarily forgetting that she is of the reviled gypsy faith. Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," has long been a popular source for cinematic adaptations, and William Dieterle's 1939 version is often considered one of the best, featuring an incredibly heartfelt performance from Charles Laughton as the titular hunchback of Notre Dame cathedral.

When he initially published his novel, Hugo titled the story "Notre-Dame de Paris." He was subsequently dissatisfied with the English translation of the title, since it implied that the Quasimodo was the story's main character, when, in fact, he had originally intended it to be a celebration of the cathedral itself, an attempt to "preserve" the famed monument. This objective is certainly an admirable one, but, as far as Dieterle's film is concerned, it results in a somewhat uneven narrative. Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) and Esmerelda certainly serve the story adequately enough, but our thoughts and sympathies are forever with the tragic Quasimodo, and any scene that doesn't feature him seems insignificant – perhaps further proof of our natural fascination towards the grotesque. Also playing major roles in the story are Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), Quasimodo's sinister mentor who falls in love and is tormented by rejection, and King Louis XI (Harry Davenport), the open-minded but rather naive French royal {a far cry from what history tells us of the real Louis XI}.

Though screenwriters Sonya Levien and Bruno Frank fashioned Victor Hugo's conclusion into what has been called a "happy ending," it nonetheless remains the most heartbreakingly tragic finale I've seen in a long while. Esmerelda may have been saved from hanging, but the true "hero" of the story is neglected and abandoned in the highest reaches of the cathedral. His final sentiment, expressing the desire to be made of stone, is delivered with incredible poignancy by Laughton, and speaks of a lifetime of unimaginable isolation and desolation. This final line stresses the terrible irony of Quasimodo's predicament: as a stone chimera, however gruesome, his artistry would be celebrated by thousands of admirers {as he briefly experienced early in the film, when a frenetic crowd informally crowned him "king"}. However, more importantly, being made of stone would simply bring an end to his unspeakable pain, to the incessant aching of a heart that desires a woman he could never, and will never, have for himself.
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Great Movie
PWNYCNY22 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
If any movie can be characterized as beautiful, then this is the movie. Not only does this movie tell a gripping story, it does so with a style that keeps the audience transfixed. This movie is a great example of expressionist art as the director uses the sets and cinematography to create a mood of suspense that permeates throughout the entire movie. Many of the scenes are spectacular and have become iconic. This movie is definitely a classic.

There's a saying: "They don't make 'em like that anymore." This saying is especially true for the 1939 classic, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." What makes this movie so great is 1. the story, 2. the screenplay, and 3. the acting. Surprising is Edmund O'Brien's excellent portrayal of the people's poet, Gringoire. But of course the star of the movie is Charles Laughton, whose portrayal of the poor and hapless Quasimodo, who is hopelessly in love with the beautiful Esmeralda, transforms this movie from an interesting period piece into a really powerful story. For this movie is truly dramatic - in its portrayal of the power of the Church in medieval society; its portrayal of the people themselves, who are angry, restless, and desperate; and its portrayal of an unfortunate man, Quasimodo, an outcast, who transcends his place in society to defend the woman he loves, without conditions, and protect the Church and in the process becomes a hero. By the way, Maureen O'Hara's portrayal of the gypsy girl Esmeralda is so strong and evocative that one cannot help but empathize with the character who is the very personification of victimization. If you want to watch a classic movie, then this is the right movie for you.
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peaton-128 October 2002
I just have to say, the scene where Quasimodo rescues Esmerelda from the noose is probably the greatest cinematic moment I have ever been witness to. An absolutely amazing piece of work in an absolutely amazing movie. Charles Laughton could not possibly have played the Hunchback any better, and Maureen O'Hara is so lovely that you can not help but sympathize with every male character in the movie who can not possibly have her. An amazing piece of work.
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Touching story of Victor Hugo's poor bell-ringer.
jonathandoe_se7en8 September 2001
The 1939 version of Hugo's classic tale of beauty and the beast is definitely the definitive. It features a great performance by Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, dubbed the Hunchback of Notre Dame, because of his twisted appearance. It's pointless for me to talk about the story, because I'm sure everyone is familiar with it, it's one of the best works of literature ever produced. Id' just like to say this is a beautiful film about a beautiful person, cursed to be considered an out cast, "the king of fools"... Films like this and David Lynch's The Elephant Man really make you think a little differently about this so-called "beautiful" world. The Hunchback of Notre Dame has something for everyone to enjoy.
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Why Was I Not Made of Stone, like thee?
thinker16919 June 2007
From the upper shelf wherein reside all classic novels, comes this tortured tale of the famed disfigured man from Notre Dame. Although this story has been a staple of many generations, it returns to the silver screen ever so often to test the talents of up and coming Hollywood stars. Despite the fact that many notable actors have attempted the role, few do so adequately. Among the actors who have made the part memorable, the original challenge was Lon Chaney's. Another was Anthony Quinn, followed by Anthony Hopkins, and even Mandy Patinkin tried the twisted body. But in my opinion, the greatest performance of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was this one, personified by Charles Laughton. From the moment the audience and our hero meet, it's a test of endurance. Can we bare to look upon the ugly, misshapen-ed man, who's only crime was being born half made, hence the term "Quasi", or will we draw back in fear as people did in his century? The story bears repeating as the tale of a horribly disfigured child, born so repulsive, that Parisians left him to die on the steps of Notre Dame. Saved, adopted and trained as a bell-ringer, by the deeply troubled, but powerful Father Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), he becomes a on-going joke around Paris, to all concerned except Frollo. The bells made him deaf, but that does not stop him from falling in love with a beautiful Gypsy girl named Esmerald. (Maureen O'Hara) She unfortunately is in love with Phobeus, a handsome soldier of the king. However it is Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) a poet and playwright who leads the group of admirers which includes Father Frollo, to see which one will end up possessing the girl, in a time when superstition possessed most of Europe. Unlikely as it sounds it's the bell-ringer who draws close first. An excellent adaptation of his story, Victor Hugo would have enjoyed this version best. *****
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stellar performances from a great book
didi-515 March 2005
One of the great Hollywood films of 1939, this adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel is sumptuously put together, boasting a fine script, tight direction by German export William Dieterle, and a cast who fit their parts perfectly: Charles Laughton superb as the maligned Quasimodo; Maureen O'Hara in an early role as gypsy Esmeralda; Cedric Hardwicke as the pious Frollo; and Harry Davenport as the king, Louis XI.

The story is a version of Beauty and the Beast set within the confines of Notre Dame Cathedral and the dirt-strewn and prejudiced streets of Paris. Quasimodo, physically repulsive and deafened by the bells of the cathedral, nevertheless finds it in his childish heart to love the beautiful Esmeralda and to sacrifice his sanctuary for her. She however only has eyes for the dashing Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) who she saves from the justice of the beggar thieves.

It is Laughton's performance that holds this film together - truly one of the greatest screen actors, capable of portraying pathos like no other. Contrast this film role with his Henry VIII or Captain Bligh and you begin to get an idea of his impressive range.
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Superb, complex
AbandonedRailroadGrade23 April 2000
What a great film! I've seen bits and pieces of it throughout my life, but never paid it much attention because I figured it was just another old monster movie. Not true! For whatever reason, I paid attention when I caught it on cable this afternoon, and I was MESMERIZED! It's so complex, and well-acted, and enlightened. The story revolves around a beautiful Gypsy woman, pleading for the rights of her people against pervasive anti-Gypsy prejudice--a problem in the Middle Ages as it was when the film was made in 1939. (In real life, Hitler was just a couple of years away from attempting to exterminate the Gypsy people, which would leave some 200,000 to 300,000 Gypsies dead by the time this film was six years old.) She is loved by practically every man who meets her, among them a grotesquely deformed bell-ringer, a starry-eyed itinerant singer/poet/writer, a dashing police captain, and the bitterly warped Chief Justice Frollo. The acting is great, the characters are three-dimensional. Laughton, with just a few grunts and grimaces, conveys all the sorrow and pathos and innocence and madness behind hunchback's mask-like face. And one can feel sorry--almost--for the evil Frollo; there is indeed a human being down there somewhere, just as Esmeralda says. The passions of the mob are realistic, as they vacillate between merciless sadism, sentimentalism, and a thirst for justice. All these characters, and all the social and political forces of medieval Paris (and 19th-century Paris, and 1930's liberal Hollywood) come swirling together, and it's not always clear who's right and who's wrong, and the results are fascinating!
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Great film, great cast,great music
baz-1511 August 1999
I remember `Super Channel' showed this regularly about 10 years ago. The opening 1/2 hour is superb, with several outstanding scenes and very haunting music.The cast is brilliant, not only do you get Laughton but also Maureen O'Hara, Cedric Hardwicke and Edmon O'Brien. And Thomas Mitchell is the man! All in all a most satisfying film: 8.5 out of 10
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Why was I not made of stone like thee?
Reb926 May 1999
This may be the greatest performance ever given by Charles Laughton. One sees the hurt and despair of someone so awful looking that they are shunned by all society. Laughton illuminates the bell ringers soul. As some others have speculated, perhaps his own life in the closet and his inability to accept that he was an ugly man were factors that inspired the performance.
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For Ham the Bell Tolls…
DrMMGilchrist5 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
As an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 'Notre Dame de Paris', William Dieterle's 1939 film is itself malformed, a picturesque travesty twisted out of shape by the demands of the Hays Office. It is the chief source of the 1996 Disney animation of the same title, inheriting elements from Wallace Worsley's 1923 silent adaptation. *Some spoilers follow, as I wish to compare the book and the film, and refer to other film versions.*

'Notre Dame de Paris' is a mediæval tragedy, dominated by Claude Frollo, the young Archdeacon unhinged by the conflict between his sexuality and his vows of celibacy. The Hays Code, which superseded the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', forbade negative, controversial or disrespectful depictions of clergymen. As a result, this adaptation follows Worsley's 1923 film in rearranging the Frollo brothers to placate the Hays Office and the Catholic Legion of Decency. Claude Frollo (Walter Hampden) remains Archdeacon, but is a kindly old fellow, not the tormented young genius of the book. Instead, book-Claude's passion for Esméralda is transferred to his secular brother, Jehan (Cedric Hardwicke) – a spoilt teenage student and party-animal in the novel, but here as a sexually repressed, politically repressive middle-aged judge and adviser to Louis XI. (To anyone who knows the book, the linkage of Jehan with repression of *any* kind is hilarious…!) These portrayals directly influenced the 1996 Disney animation: indeed, Disney's 'Minister Claude Frollo' caricatures Hardwicke's chiselled features and chaperon. Hardwicke conveys film-Jehan's not-all-that-suppressed desires – in one scene in Notre Dame, he is clearly ogling Esméralda's cleavage while she is speaking to him (a rare trace of book-Jehan!) – but, as he is not under vows, there is no powerful plot-reason for him to deny them in the first place. (Amusingly, Hampden and Hardwicke later returned to 15C Paris as Louis XI and Tristan L'Hermite in 'The Vagabond King' (1956).)

Without the psychological conflict between religious vows and human passions, the core plot loses its raison d'être. This adaptation therefore shoehorns in a 'political' conflict, making film-Jehan a persecutor of gypsies and a bitter opponent of intellectual freedom, as symbolised by the printing press, which he destroys. This seems to me a wilful misreading of book-Claude's pronouncement, "Ceci tuera celà". Hugo extrapolates how the printed word will kill the 'stone books' of the cathedrals; literature will supersede architecture as an art; freedom of thought will triumph over ecclesiastical domination. In the novel, Claude seems to accept the inevitability of this, ambivalently but calmly. He is a man on the cusp of the Renaissance: a scientist and polymath, as well as a priest, who can see equally the dangers and the opportunities ahead. To make his screen incarnation (under whatever name) a violent opponent of the new learning, while presenting Louis XI as its champion, is a gross distortion. (This was taken to an even more ridiculous extreme in the 1997 US TV version, with Richard Harris's elderly Dom Claude a reactionary fanatic leading the smashing of printing presses, and Mandy Patinkin's Quasimodo a secret intellectual and author!) Only Delannoy's 1956 film, starring Alain Cuny as Claude, has made much of his alchemy. Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) is transformed anachronistically from the amiable playwright and goat-fancier of the novel into a romantic young rebel, a radical satirist and political pamphleteer, who incurs film-Jehan's displeasure. He would fit more comfortably among the revolutionary students in 'Les Misérables'.

As in 1923, the use of the inaccurate popular English title again promotes the supporting character of Quasimodo to greater prominence. Charles Laughton's Quasimodo is thick-sliced Yorkshire ham. He is lugubrious and self-pitying, more like an elderly man than the young one the script acknowledges him to be during his trial. His spinal curve is overdone: a boy as severely deformed as this would have been unlikely to survive in 15C, and despite his deformity, Hugo's Quasimodo is notably agile. Anthony Quinn's 1956 portrayal was far more credible and vital. Laughton was, I think, simply unlucky with his casting in Hugo adaptations: in the Hays Code-pleasing bowdlerisation of 'Les Misérables', he had played Javert, when he would have been better as Jean Valjean (his physical bulk and presence are reminiscent of Harry Baur, the definitive film-Valjean), a role given instead to matinée idol Frederic March.

Maureen O'Hara makes a spirited and beautiful Esméralda, appropriately still in her teens, but nevertheless seems too intelligent and streetwise to have fallen for the duplicitous and caddish Phœbus (Alan Marshal). (Book-Esméralda is alarmingly gullible, given that she has been raised among thieves and cut-throats.) In this version, he is really killed, which weakens the story. Part of the horror of Esméralda's plight in the book is that he recovers from his wound, but refuses to clear her name or lift a finger to help her in any way – while she remains infatuated, precipitating the final tragedy by calling his name at the least opportune moment possible. Again, the Hays Code interfered in depicting injustice: individual officials could be depicted as wicked or corrupt, but the rule of law and authority itself must be upheld. Hence the film depicts the king as essentially benevolent, but badly advised by the hypocritical Jehan, who persecutes Esméralda for spurning his advances.

There is excellent work from the supporting cast, notably Thomas Mitchell as a wily Clopin Trouillefou, and the production values are good. I wonder whether the set of old Paris was the same one used for the 1923 silent version? The happy ending is a final bowdlerisation, far less powerful than that of the novel: of the cinema versions, only Delannoy's 1956 film has taken us into the charnel-house at Montfaucon. Pierre gets the girl, as well as the goat, and Quasimodo gazes down wistfully as they go off together. Perhaps this time, *he* should have run off with Djali as a consolation prize?
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A remarkable achievement
brendangcarroll27 October 2013
Considering that RKO was not renowned for epic film making, the production mounted for this version of Victor Hugo's classic story is surprisingly elaborate and effective.

The Paris set is a beautiful creation and possibly the greatest work by Van Nest Polglase, who with the producer Pan Berman is chiefly remembered today for the elegant art-deco designs for the Astaire-Rogers musicals.

The centrepiece of this remarkable set is the replica of Notre Dame cathedral which was only built to 50% height of the original; the towers above were added as an optical effect by use of a hanging miniature in some shots and by incorporating a glass painting in long shots. It's very convincing.

Dieterle was the perfect choice to direct this story. A student (and later collaborator) of Max Reinhardt, he marshals the huge crowd scenes (no CGi here - those thousands of peasants are all real people) with aplomb and his mastery of expressionistic imagery informs every frame.

Alfred Newman brought an intelligence to the musical score rare in Hollywood. His on screen credit "Musical adaptation and original composition by" reflects his skillful combining of original renaissance choral music by Tomas Luis de Victoria with his own work. He also uses a stirring Hallelujah chorus by uncredited Austrian Jewish émigré Ernst Toch (in Hollywood to escape the Nazis) for the memorable scene where Quasimodo rescues Esmeralda, reprised at the film's closing sequence as the camera pulls back from Notre Dame.

It's a great pity that a better restoration cannot be achieved for this beautiful film than is currently available on DVD. While the source print is serviceable, it is often poorly defined and suffers from many scratches. Perhaps it is the only print now extant? I would also love to see the original trailer rather than the re-release version.

While some may wish Basil Rathbone could have been released from contract at Universal to play Frollo, I think Cedric Hardwicke was ideal casting. As for Laughton, this may well be his signature role and a masterly example of great acting with hardly any dialogue at all.

As Mr Sinatra once said - "You can wait around and hope - but you won't see the likes of this again"
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Laughton is Incredible
kidwltm13 July 2003
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a classic hollywood monster story, more concerned with emotion and characters than thrills and chills. It features some of the best B & W cinematography around, and some awesome set pieces. But the film is made by Charles Laughton. It's just heartbreaking to watch this man as Quasimodo. The range of emotion that comes through him is startling. Sadly, he is only featured in the story in bit parts. The story is mainly concerned with beautiful Esmeralda and the men who fall for her, including the Hunchback. And when the film is away from the Hunchback, it suffers. The Thiefs Brigade is a little silly, and the Poet is a throwaway character, and most of the dialogue is standard Hollywood romance. The scenes with The Hunchback, especially the ones near the end, are so poweful, its beyond words. The writing, the directing, everything just comes together perfectly in those scenes, and It's when Laughton shines the most.

Overall, it's quite a technical achievement. The screenplay was rough in areas and and the middle section drags a bit, but see it, if for anything, Charles Laughton's masterful performance


* * * 1/2 / * * * *
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The ultimate beauty & the beast saga
george.schmidt10 April 2003
@ THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1939) **** Charles Laughton, Marueen O' Hara, Edmond O' Brien, Cedric Hardwicke. Victor Hugo's classic novel comes to fruition in perhaps the definitive film interpretation of the deformed bellringer, Quasimodo (Laughton emoting under all that grotesque make-up, effectively poignant) who falls in love with the beautiful gypsy girl, Esmeralda, and his overwhelming desire to protect her. Great production values.
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All for the love of a girl.
Michael O'Keefe1 March 2003
No doubt the best and most memorable version of the Victor Hugo classic. A deformed Parisian bellringer(Charles Laughton)at the Notre Dame Cathedral is humiliated and publicly tortured for offering shelter to a gypsy girl(Maureen O'Hara)accused of being a witch. The scene of the townspeople storming the cathedral is unforgettable. The terrific photography and direction makes this the choice over the first version that featured Lon Chaney in 1923. The solid cast also includes:Thomas Mitchell, Cedric Hardwicke, Edmond O'Brien and Walter Hampden.
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