Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mini-Review - "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" (1939)


Some time ago, I wrote a review of the 1925 version of "The Phantom Of The Opera," and discussed how the only true memorable part of the film was Lon Chaney's terrifying and haunting performance as the phantom. In a way, the 1939 version of "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" is the same way with its lead role, played by Charles Laughton, but with the added benefit of developing this distant and foreign world.

If you've watched the Disney version of "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame," then you will see a similar plot in this film, though with less musical numbers and no talking gargoyles. What the 1939 film changes though is that Quasimodo (Laughton) is now deaf from being near the bells for this long, and has very few lines of dialogue. Laughton must communicate to Ezmerelda and Frollo through facial expressions and body language, which is made even more difficult with the large amounts of make-up on him. Yet he is able to give Quasimodo this loving and curious attitude, even though the lack of dialogue and make-up.

Though Charles Laughton's performance is the reason to watch this film, what I found the most intriguing was how strange and ancient this 15th century France was. The wealthiest citizens are amazed at the sight of a printing press, able to create a book in under a week, as opposed to before taking two to three years to make one bible. Or how King Louis XI talks about Christopher Columbus attempting to travel west to get to India faster, and other aristocrats speaking up to say that they know the world is flat and that he'll fall from it.

Most of these gave me a good chuckle, but at the same time, this is the world they lived in. Where they had not discovered what we now know and go off merely their own faiths and beliefs, and accept them as truths. Which is why someone like Quasimodo would be forced to live in a church, locked away from the rest of this prejudice and scared society.

"The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" certainly has many elements worth checking out, including Charles Laughton's performance and an exciting climax where Quasimodo must fight off most of Paris. It is a bit slow near the middle of the film and Ezmerelda is a pretty forgettable character. Still, this one had a lot going for it.

Final Grade: B-

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