In any another year, RKO Studio’s epic adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” would have been more memorable. However, the film was released in 1939, right around the time such movies as “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” became massive theatrical successes. While it was quite popular upon its release, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” became a little lost in the shuffle, and never fully made back its large budget—the second largest in RKO’s history. While it isn’t as compelling a film as the 1923 version starring Lon Chaney, William Dieterle’s 1939 “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is worth a watch for several reasons.
The story is about Quasimodo (Charles Laughton), the deformed bell-ringer of the Notre Dame Cathedral in 15th century France who intervenes when the gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) is framed for murder and about to be hanged. The film takes significant liberties with the source material, opting for a happier ending as opposed to the tragic original. Because of its less dark take on the story, when Walt Disney Studios began production on an animated version of the story in the mid-1990s, they took inspiration from this film rather than the novel.
It’s a joy to watch Laughton and O’Hara in this film. Laughton discovered O’Hara and they starred together in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Jamaica Inn” the year before. When Laughton came across this film he brought O’Hara to America with him to play Esmeralda. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was only her second feature, and she is entrancing to watch. But it’s Laughton who commands the most attention with his heart-breaking performance as the hunchback Quasimodo. Laughton went through hours of make-up each day to transform into the character, whose appearance was kept secret from the public for as long as possible before the film was released. The transformation is as impressive as Chaney’s was. The massive set—a medieval city constructed entirely on RKO’s ranch—and cinematography are works of art that are beautiful to behold.
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, released in the same year as some of the most widely-seen films in history, is still fresh; the material, with its themes of isolation and acceptance, still resonates with emotion. It deserves to be seen.
"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" airs on TCM August 27 at 6 AM EST.
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