The scene in which Quasimodo rings the cathedral bells for Esmeralda was shot the day World War II began in Europe. The director and star were so overwhelmed, the scene took on a new meaning, with Charles Laughton ringing the bells frantically and William Dieterle forgetting to yell "cut." Finally, the actor just stopped ringing when he became too tired to continue. Later, Laughton said, "I couldn't think of Esmeralda in that scene at all. I could only think of the poor people out there, going in to fight that bloody, bloody war! To arouse the world, to stop that terrible butchery! Awake! Awake! That's what I felt when I was ringing the bells!"
Well aware of the war raging in Europe, Charles Laughton chose a lull in the day's shooting to recite, in full Quasimodo costume, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, as he had done in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935). As in the previous film, it stunned the cast and crew for the rest of the shooting day.
This was RKO's last release for 1939 (and second costliest in its history, next to Gunga Din (1939)). Although it premiered about the same time as Gone with the Wind (1939), it held its own at the box office, grossing an impressive $3.155 million.
The movie was filmed during one of the hottest summers up to that time, with temperatures regularly topping 100 degrees as Charles Laughton labored under the heavy makeup and costume. It was so hot at night that he had to sleep in wet sheets to keep cool, and the moisture usually evaporated within minutes. On top of that, he had to be at the studio by 4 a.m. each day to get into the makeup.
For the scene in which Quasimodo is whipped, Charles Laughton instructed an assistant director to twist his ankle outside of camera range so he would really be in pain. Even through the heavy hump and rubber body suit, he felt every lash and often came home badly bruised. Before the 16th take, director William Dieterle whispered to him, "Now, Charles, listen to me. Let's do it one more time, but this time I want you . . . I want you to suffer." According to Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, the actor never forgave him for that.
RKO specifically wanted to outdo the 1923 silent version of the story (The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)), so a vigorous campaign that spared no expense was undertaken. Much attention was given to advance publicity; no pictures of Charles Laughton in full Quasimodo makeup and costume were allowed to be seen so that a first-time viewing would be a guaranteed shock. Also, the studio hired (at Laughton's request) leading makeup artist Perc Westmore to supervise makeup. Unfortunately, Westmore and Laughton had heated quarrels before a final image for Quasimodo was agreed upon.
To turn Charles Laughton into the deformed bell ringer, Perc Westmore covered half his face with sponge rubber, adding a protruding eyeball lower than the average. Laughton's other eye was covered with a milky contact lens. The hump consisted of an aluminum framework stuffed with four pounds of foam rubber, and the rest of Laughton's torso was padded with rubber to create a sense of the muscles developed from pulling on the bell ropes.
Van Nest Polglase reconstructed medieval Paris in a lavish set built on location in the San Fernando Valley. The cathedral stood 190 feet high and included gargoyles, vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, all at a cost of $250,000. Polglase also incorporated scenic pieces from Lon Chaney's silent version.
MGM executive Irving Thalberg first presented the project to Charles Laughton in 1934. However, plans didn't materialize until Laughton signed with RKO and chose this film as his first assignment at that studio.
The film premiered as the Christmas attraction at the Radio City Music Hall, triggering complaints from some critics who viewed it more as a horror film than an historical spectacle and considered it too frightening for family audiences.
RKO's original trailer shows Charles Laughton almost entirely from the back, except for a rapid, blurred shot of his face when he is revealed to the crowd at the Feast of Fools. The scene where Quasimodo talks to Esmeralda ("I'm not a man and I'm not a beast . . . ") is re-edited so the viewer can only see Maureen O'Hara's face and the back of Laughton's head. Captions at the end read: "See the Storming of Notre Dame . . . See the Face of the Hunchback".
On the first day of shooting, director William Dieterle assembled a crowd of extras in front of the cathedral set and called for Charles Laughton. The actor, in full costume and makeup, protested that he wasn't ready to play the scene yet and couldn't shoot that day. Dieterle said, "Please, Charles, the next time you are not ready, let me know it previously so I can plan accordingly."
According to a 1932 news item in "The Hollywood Reporter", Universal announced that John Huston was writing a treatment for the first sound version of Victor Hugo's story as a vehicle for Boris Karloff.
American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films 1931-39 includes Gail Patrick and Laura Hope Crews among the uncredited players, without role designations. Neither actress appears in the film in any role of prominence, which their status in the industry at that time would have dictated. It's possible, however, they participated anonymously as extras, just for the experience, as many of their contemporaries often did.
Lon Chaney Jr. screen-tested extensively to play the role that his father had originated. When it appeared that trouble with the IRS might prevent Charles Laughton from working in America, RKO Pictures promised the role to Chaney Jr. if Laughton's services could not be secured. Laughton, however, overcame his tax difficulties and made the picture.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Sound from King Kong (1933) is used in the film: when Esmeralda is being tortured, some of her screams we hear belong to Fay Wray. Also, when Quasimodo is defending the cathedral, some of the screams of the wounded attackers belong to the sailors from King Kong; and when Frollo falls to his death, his scream belongs to one of the sailors as well.