Adapted from the famous novel by Victor Hugo, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME stars Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, the title character. In film begins with the people of Paris reveling and celebrating the Feast of Fools while Quasimodo watches from above in the towers of the famous cathedral. Quasimodo is jealous of their joy and makes faces at the people below. However, his curiosity becomes piqued and he eventually descends and joins the crowds and is crowned the King of Fools. Meanwhile, Quasimodo's master Jehan Frollo (Brandon Hurst) plots with the King of Thieves, Clopin (Ernest Torrence) about starting a revolt. Crucial to the film's story is the love affair that develops between the Captain of the Kings Guard, Phoebus (Norman Kerry) and the Gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller). Clopin loves Esmeralda, but she scorns his advances and seeks the love of Phoebus. The two meet and fall in love. Jehan sees their growing love for each other as the catalyst he has been looking for to send the people in revolt and overthrow the king.
This version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is notable for the fine performance of Lon Chaney. Chaney was known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces" and Quasimodo is one of the more famous faces that modern audiences might recognize him as. In a time in which makeup was not thought of positively and prosthetics were viewed as something unnecessary and burdensome, Chaney performed wonders with the makeup and prosthetics that he created almost entirely himself. Just as impressive is his physical performance. Partially assisted by a plaster hump that weighed about 15 pounds, Chaney portrays Quasimodo as a physically tortured creature weighed down by his deformities and forced to walk around like a strange hybrid between a monkey and a frog. Younger viewers might laugh at the physical mannerisms, but they are quite impressive.
I enjoyed watching THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, but I was somewhat disappointed by the overall storyline. Hugo's story is a fascinating masterpiece and would make a great film if a filmmaker would stick to the story. Unfortunately, filmmakers rarely do and change things around to make the story lighter and happier. The antagonist of the original story is Don Claudio Frollo, a priest torn between his devotion to God and the struggle within himself between the love and lust for Esmeralda. However, in this version of the story Frollo is rarely seen and is portrayed as a perfect saint. Instead it is Frollo's brother, a relatively minor character in Hugo's story, who is turned into the villain. Esmeralda and Phoebus also receive major character overhauls in this version of the story. After hearing so many positive things about this film so long, I was disappointed by how much it deviates from Hugo's tale.
However, the worst thing about this DVD is the transfer. There are times when the film is scratchy and there are other times when parts of the film aren't lined up properly and are cut off from the screen.
Nevertheless, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is worth watching if you are a serious movie fan or have any interest in cinema history.
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Lon Chaney, the man of a thousand faces, was best known for playing Quasimodo and the Phantom of the Opera. But the former role was clearly the most ambitious of his illustrious career, full of such longing and anguish. It's as though his entire being was consumed by this ugly outcast with a heart as big and beautiful as Notre Dame itself. And the makeup is still astonishing. The rest of this unrequited love story is pretty effective as well, with the re-creation of medieval Paris a standout for its lavishness. Like all great silent films, it delivers a poetry of life that is abstract and tangible at the same time.--Bill Desowitz