Extracting pleasure from horror

Released 29 December 1939 in the U.S. and throughout the world over 1940–41, this sixth film version of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the final additions to what’s widely considered film history’s greatest year, and one of RKO’s most expensive pictures.

Unlike the 1923 Lon Chaney, Sr., version, the 1939 story doesn’t have much of a horror element, unless one considers it horror by default of Quasimodo’s deformity. It’s more historical romance and drama.

Also unlike the 1923 version, it has a happier ending, and doesn’t stuff in quite so many characters and subplots from the book.

In January 1482, King Louis IX (Harry Davenport) visits a printing shop with Jehan Frollo, Chief Justice of Paris (Sir Cedric Hardwicke). While Frollo sees this new invention as evil (as he does many other things), the King thinks it’s wonderful. Though he finds hand-written books more beautiful, they often take years to complete, whereas the printing press only takes a few weeks and is much cheaper.

The printer then shows them a new book, On the Freedom of Thought, by poet Pierre Gringoire. Frollo condemns him as a heretic, but the King believes it could be a great blessing if all of France learns to read thanks to this modern miracle.

While they’re in the shop, hunchback Quasimodo is ringing the bells. The King says he’s never heard a more beautiful rendition of Angelus.

Next day comes the Feast of Fools, which originated in proper liturgical observance but was later condemned by Church authorities because of its parody of ecclesiastical ritual and clergy. The common people of Paris turn out in droves for the celebration, which includes a play by Gringoire (Edmond O’Brien).

We then meet Clopin, King of the Beggars (Thomas Mitchell), who interrupts Gringoire’s play, and Romani dancer Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara). Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is crowned King of Fools. In the book, he’s truly crowned Pope of Fools.

The party ends when Frollo takes Quasimodo home to the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Being both deformed and Deaf, this is the only safe place for Quasimodo to live.

Meanwhile, Esmeralda goes in search of the King to beg for a permit to allow her people to live in Paris, and is caught by a guard. Several soldiers chase her all the way to Notre Dame, where she finds sanctuary with Frollo’s brother Claude, Archbishop of Paris.

While she’s praying to Mary for her people’s protection, Jehan Frollo sharply rebukes her, telling her she has no right to be in a church. Luckily, she then encounters the King, who promises protection.

For her own safety, Claude takes Esmeralda to the bell tower, but Quasimodo terrifies her, and she flees. Jehan orders Quasimodo to give chase and kidnap her.

Gringoire witnesses this and asks Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) and his guards to apprehend Quasimodo. Esmeralda falls in love with her rescuer Phoebus, but she’s soon compelled to marry Gringoire to save him from being hanged when he accidentally trespasses in the Court of Miracles (i.e., a slum).

Quasimodo is publicly whipped and forced to languish in the stocks. Jehan, always the fair-weather, self-serving friend, does nothing to help.

Quasimodo, who’s able to speak in a limited capacity, begs for water, and Esmeralda comes to his rescue.

That night, Esmeralda is invited to a party attended by the nobility. Jehan, who previously ordered the guards to round up and arrest all the Romani women to find his unmutual crush Esmeralda, uses this as an opportunity to get her alone and confess his feelings.

Esmeralda is much happier for stolen moments with Phoebus, who reciprocates her feelings. But an act of violence destroys this budding romance, and Esmeralda is falsely accused of the crime.

Will her innocence be proven before it’s too late?

A Universal Studios remake of the 1923 film was in the works since 1932. Originally, Boris Karloff was slated to play Quasimodo. In 1934, the studio regained interest in this project, and ultimately decided to cast Peter Lorre.

This obviously never happened, as the property was sold to MGM as a star vehicle for Paul Muni. MGM then sold the rights to RKO.

Screenwriter Sonya Levien (one of the highest-earning women in her profession in the 1930s) emphasized the parallels between persecution of Romani and Nazi treatment of Jews at the time.

Lon Chaney, Jr. was eager to play the role which made his father a superstar. Though RKO thought his screen tests were great, they felt someone else would be more suitable. British-born Charles Laughton was offered the part, but when IRS issues threatened his ability to work in the U.S., RKO offered it to Chaney again.

After his IRS problems were resolved, Laughton got the role back.

Maureen O’Hara, only 18 during filming, made her U.S. screen début as Esmeralda. Kathryn Adams had been set for the role, and was given the part of one of Fleur de Lys’s companions as compensation.

Claude Rains was set to play Jehan Frollo, but refused it after a very negative encounter with Laughton which ended their relationship.

The budget was $1.8 million ($33,497,870.50 today).

Just as in the 1923 film, Claude Frollo is a good guy while brother Jehan is the villain. In the book, it’s the opposite. The restrictive Hays Code forbade negative depiction of clergy.

Reviews were overwhelmingly positive, but despite its popularity, the exorbitant costs meant it only made $100,000 profit.

Hunchback was nominated for Best Sound and Best Original Music Score at the Academies.

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