Released 2 September 1923, the fifth screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel was the film that catapulted Lon Chaney, Sr., from a popular character actor to a huge superstar. It grossed $3.5 million, making it Universal’s highest-earning film of the silent era.
In 1482, Quasimodo, a deaf, half-blind hunchback, lives in sanctuary at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. As an early intertitle tells us, “the bells were the only voice of his groping soul.”
The townspeople hate and jeer Quasimodo on account of his deformities, and he hates them right back.
Also living in sanctuary in the cathedral is Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the Archdeacon’s brother, who turned to evil and is Quasimodo’s puppet-master.
We then meet Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), a child of mystery whom beggar Clopin (awesome character actor Ernest Torrence) bought from Romani (referred to with the now-outdated term “Gypsies”) and raised as his own.
Marie, “Queen of the Gypsies,” a angry madwoman, taunts Esmeralda. We learn she once was happy and sane, but she lost her child and hasn’t been the same since. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess their possible connection!
During these first twenty minutes, we also meet a whole slew of other characters. As much as I love books with ensemble casts, this often creates cast bloat in films, esp. when characters are thrown at us thick and fast. The same for too many subplots. Even a longer than average film doesn’t have the luxury of as much space as a novel to fully, properly develop characters and storylines.
Jehan orders Quasimodo to kidnap Esmeralda, but Captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry), whom Esmeralda has long had a crush on, comes upon the scene and rescues her. Quasimodo is tied up and taken away.
Esmeralda is thrilled when Phoebus takes her to his place for some food and wine before going home. For Phoebus, it’s just another woman to seduce, but for Esmeralda, it’s a golden ticket. She says the fortuneteller was right when she predicted marriage to a Captain of the Guards.
Phoebus notices Esmeralda’s necklace, and she says her mother, whom she barely remembers, gave it to her. All she knows is that no harm shall befall her as long as she wears it. After hearing this, Phoebus steps back from his plans to seduce her.
In the public square, Quasimodo suffers twenty lashes for doing Jehan’s bidding. As always, Lon stirs so much emotion during this scene. He put so much humanity and sympathy into all these social outcasts, deformed people, people in great emotional pain, people who were outside the so-called norm in some way.
Esmeralda alone shows sympathy on Quasimodo after his lashing, while he’s still tied up. She fills a jug with water and brings it to him, then pulls his torn shirt back onto his body.
After this, Dom Claude (Jehan’s brother) comes up and unties him.
A ball is held to celebrate Phoebus’s appointment as Captain of the Guards, to which Esmeralda accompanies him. Though he’s engaged to Fleur de Lys de Gondelaurier, he now plans to marry Esmeralda instead. Phoebus gives her fine garments and introduces her as an Egyptian princess.
Clopin, enraged Esmeralda is running around with an aristocrat, storms the ball with his beggars. To prevent a huge row, Esmeralda declares she belongs with her people. When Phoebus reminds her of their engagement, she lies that she doesn’t love him, and leaves with Clopin.
Esmeralda sends the poet Gringoire, whose life she previously saved, to deliver a message to Phoebus. She asks for a goodbye rendezvous by the cathedral, and things don’t exactly go as planned. I won’t spoil what happens from this point on.
In the book, the main villain is Archdeacon Claude Frollo, not his younger brother Jehan. Censorship wouldn’t allow clergy to be shown in a negative light. There’s no motivation (religious, moral, cultural, etc.) for why he can’t act on his obsession with Esmeralda (the main focus of the book’s plot). Here, he’s very one-dimensional.
Nothing really comes of the subplot about Esmeralda’s long-lost mother. It’s like the producers were trying to follow the book too closely (minus the censorship), and thus stuck in everything and everyone, even when it leads nowhere.
Though the film does build rather slowly, and not all the characters are developed enough, Lon is excellent as Quasimodo, and the slow build leads up to an incredible final third. The payoff is worth it.