Saturday, October 19, 2013

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Who's in it?: Lon Chaney (The Phantom of the Opera, London After Midnight), Patsy Ruth Miller (dozens of silent films, but this is the only one she's known for), and Norman Kerry (The Phantom of the Opera, The Unknown).

What's it about?: A gypsy girl captures the hearts of a royal knight (Kerry) and a deformed outcast (Chaney).

How is it?: Amazingly faithful to Victor Hugo's novel, which is quite a feat due to the numerous characters and plots Hugo liked to weave together in books like this and Les Miserables. Director Wallace Worseley's adaptation manages to condense everything while still feel like the real thing. Chaney of course is astonishing as Quasimodo, creating his own makeup and swinging around on gargoyles like he's Spider-Man. Miller perfectly gets across Esmerelda's innocence and kindness and makes me believe that everyone falls in love with her, because I'm right there with them. And Kerry may be wearing a goofy wig, but his Phoebus has a charming sense of humor and a light spirit that makes him a great contrast to all the scheming and misery going on in the rest of the film. It's easy to see why Esmerelda goes for him.

That said, the courtship between Esmerelda and Phoebus is rushed and awkward. By the end of the movie I believe that they care deeply about each other, but getting there is rough. They represent powerful things to each other though, so the attraction makes sense. Esmerelda's a stark contrast to the more sophisticated women Phoebus is used to, while he's the shining sun in her dark world.

That darkness makes for a powerful, contemporary theme as Esmerelda's friends grow increasingly frustrated with how they're treated by the rich, and the possibility of rebellion becomes more and more real. It's easy to relate to her foster father, Clopin, and his thirst for justice, even if I don't like the violent way with which he wants to seize it.

For all this extra richness though, the film is best when it's focusing on Quasimodo, a man so lowly that even the miserable Clopin and Company feel superior to him. Chaney makes Quasimodo incredibly sympathetic and I felt the pain when he was betrayed by someone he thought was his only friend. Just as I also experienced his joy and love in response to Esmerelda's forgiveness and kindness.

Rating: Five out of five pitchers of water.


Wings1295 said...

Actually haven't ever seen this film. I hope to soon, though, sounds great.

Michael May said...

I hope you do! And please let me know what you think. I hesitate to give it a blanket recommendation because silent films aren't for everyone, but if you're okay with them, Hunchback is one of my favorites. And if you've never seen a silent movie, it's a great one to try out first because it's so strong.


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