*** This review may contain 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
'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 The Hays Code, which superseded the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', forbade negative, controversial or disrespectful depictions of clergymen.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 teenaged 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 prosthetics are overdone: a boy as severely deformed as this would have been unlikely to survive in 15C, and it is worth noting that, despite his misshapenness, 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 Phbus (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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