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Thread: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (RKO, 1939)

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    Default "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (RKO, 1939)

    Today I've watched this film again after a long hiatus. Made by RKO in 1939, the final scenes were being filmed as WW2 broke out. Directed by William Dieterle (who had left Germany in 1930 for the USA to flee a worsening political situation), the film stars Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara (Esmeralda). It was the second version of the film to be made by 1939 - the first by silent star Lon Chaney some years earlier. (Another absolutely extraordinary performance - this time athleticism and mime instead of pathos and subtlety.)

    "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" has been re-made several times since this production but I believe this to be the definitive version. Laughton's Quasimodo is no mere deformed caricature moving about, ape-like, among the bell towers, but a wonderfully nuanced performance which is, as one critic (Derrick Malcolm) described it, a love story about a deformed man portrayed by an actor who was himself physically unattractive.

    The scenes with O'Hara are remarkable. There's a lack of background music in this production, which renders it far less 'operatic' than many 1930s melodramas. The director had the good sense to let his actors carry the film without distraction. The mise-en-scene is, as you would expect, influenced by German Expressionism (Dieterle). Quasimodo being tortured and taunted publicly on the carousel and tenderly assuaged by Esmeralda is actually biblical in inclination - and surely a shocking depiction of angry mobs on the cusp of menacing National Socialism.

    Quasomodo tells Esmeralda, whom he has taken captive into the belltower, about how loathsome his looks are but these scenes are delivered with rare nuance and sensitivity and is one of the finest performances in the history of English-speaking cinema. This Quasimodo is actually beautiful beneath his hideous and pitiful exterior.

    https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7s00m2

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    Senior Member Phil loves classical's Avatar
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    I only watched the Disney version before I like the ending in the novel much better than a happy ending (although Frollo's high pitched scream as he is thrown from the tower was pretty hilarious in the 1939 version). Or else it becomes something like a standard swashbuckler flick to me with an Elephant Man twist. Here is a much more faithful version of the ending in the novel. Although I like Laughton's Quasomodo much more than Anthony Quinn's.

    Last edited by Phil loves classical; May-21-2020 at 18:50.
    "Forgive me, Majesty. I'm a vulgar man. But I assure you, my music is not.“ Mozart

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    The limitations of sound were still a problem in films at the time of production of the Laughton "Hunchback" - and this might account for the "high pitched scream". RKO was still using orchestras on the set for the Astaire/Rogers musicals in the 1930s, though I'm unsure when this practice was ended. It may not have been the same at MGM which made "Gone With the Wind" and "The Philadelphia Story" at around this time or shortly afterwards (not to mention their musicals).

    In 1939 sound on film was a mere 12 years old and still had that 'boxy', one-dimensional quality. It would make an interesting subject of study to discern the variability, if any, from one production studio to the next. I have books on film lighting, censorship (the Hays Code) and MGM but nothing on sound. I might have to redress that situation.

    I do know that the British film industry adopted an inferior system compared to the USA and that, as a result, many British films of the period are now considered technically sub-standard. Have you noticed how few English films have actually been restored compared to American films? They can improve the image, but not the sound.

    You mentioned "Elephant Man" - that's quite a good film with John Hurt delivering a moving performance. In fact, I think his performance is better than the sum total of the film - which is often trapped in the cliched duality of 'circus freak' versus 'hospital goodness'. I didn't buy the scenes with the elegant afternoon tea at the doctor's house (Hopkins) or the actress (Bancroft) coming to his 'cell' to visit him. That was too much of a stretch, as was the iteration of "The Lord's Prayer" by "Mr. Merrick". A film undermined by melodramatic tropes, unfortunately. "Hunchback" and its many incarnations has probably suffered much the same fate; Laughton better than the film itself? Probably.
    Last edited by Christabel; May-21-2020 at 19:23. Reason: Elephant Man

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    I think the book had a better ending, where Esmeralda is hanged. I don’t remember the Laughton version’s ending, but it was unsatisfactory if I remember correctly. Anthony Quinn was not as pathetic as Laughton, and his voice grated, as if he were more retarded (sorry) than uncommunicative. I loved Gina Lollobrigida at the time and she’s pretty enough to match the book’s delicate figure. I like Maureen O’Hara, too. In B&W she isn’t as vibrant as in Technicolor, but still beautiful.

    In the novel, Esmeralda is hanged. Years later, they found two skeletons intertwined. The female’s neck had been broken. The other skeleton was misshapen but had no mark upon him. He lay with his arms around her body.
    Last edited by MAS; Aug-09-2020 at 03:41.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MAS View Post
    I think the book had a better ending, where Esmeralda is hanged. I don’t remember the Laughton version’s ending, but it was unsatisfactory if I remember correctly. Anthony Quinn was not as pathetic as Laughton, and his voice grated, as if he were more retarded (sorry) than uncommunicative. I loved Gina Lollobrigida at the time and she’s pretty enough to match the book’s delicate figure. I like Maureen O’Hara, too. In B&W she isn’t as vibrant as in Technicolor, but still beautiful.

    In the novel, Esmeralda is hanged. Years later, they found two skeletons intertwined. The female’s neck had been broken. The other skeleton was misshapen but had no mark upon him. He lay with his arms around her body.
    I haven't read the novel but the point you raise is an interesting one; it's often impossible comparing novel to film. Audiences for cinema have different expectations and the majority of film-goers in the past had more experience with cinema than novels. I'm sure this is still the case. In any even the ending you describe in your last paragraph would have been difficult to 'dramatize' in the film as envisioned - particularly the 1930s version with Laughton. And don't forget the zeitgeist and director Dieterle - a man who left Germany and who well understood the rise of racial supremacy and cultural purity! Ergo, the deformed had no place in that utopian vision. Often during difficult or controverisal times film becomes allegorical and all literal references to original text become secondary in consideration.

    Then there is the not insignificant matter of audience expectation; during the 1930s the Depression had been in its horrible throes. Audiences wanted to leave theatres believing in happy endings and hope. Studios found confronting endings in films economically and culturally unsustainable, for the most.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Christabel View Post
    I haven't read the novel but the point you raise is an interesting one; it's often impossible comparing novel to film. Audiences for cinema have different expectations and the majority of film-goers in the past had more experience with cinema than novels. I'm sure this is still the case. In any even the ending you describe in your last paragraph would have been difficult to 'dramatize' in the film as envisioned - particularly the 1930s version with Laughton. And don't forget the zeitgeist and director Dieterle - a man who left Germany and who well understood the rise of racial supremacy and cultural purity! Ergo, the deformed had no place in that utopian vision. Often during difficult or controverisal times film becomes allegorical and all literal references to original text become secondary in consideration.

    Then there is the not insignificant matter of audience expectation; during the 1930s the Depression had been in its horrible throes. Audiences wanted to leave theatres believing in happy endings and hope. Studios found confronting endings in films economically and culturally unsustainable, for the most.
    All good points, with most of which I am in agreement. Being a movie buff as well, I understand the need to be cinematic. If they ended the movie as in the book, they’d need a voice-over, or some such device. If I remember correctly, the end I describe is in an Epilogue. The 1956 version has Esmeralda killed by an arrow, rather than hanged.
    Last edited by MAS; Aug-10-2020 at 00:03.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MAS View Post
    All good points, with most of which I am in agreement. Being a movie buff as well, I understand the need to be cinematic. If they ended the movie as in the book, they’d need a voice-over, or some such device. If I remember correctly, the end I describe is in an Epilogue. The 1956 version has Esmeralda killed by an arrow, rather than hanged.
    The film itself from 1939 is excellent but there were scenes of dialogue which were unnecessarily long IMO - a consequence of adapting from a novel, I suppose. Quasimodo himself didn't play a major role in the film until quite long after its start, but what a performance!! That scene of him on the revolving platform (I've forgotten the correct name for this device), being ridiculed by the crowds, and being given water by Esmeralda is apposite and has been burned into my memory since childhood. (It is also a perfect allegory today for frightening modern cancel culture.)
    Last edited by Christabel; Aug-13-2020 at 22:51.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Christabel View Post
    The film itself from 1939 is excellent but there were scenes of dialogue which were unnecessarily long IMO - a consequence of adapting from a novel, I suppose. Quasimodo himself didn't play a major role in the film until quite long after its start, but what a performance!! That scene of him on the revolving platform (I've forgotten the correct name for this device), being ridiculed by the crowds, and being given water by Esmeralda is apposite and has been burned into my memory since childhood. (It is also a perfect allegory today for frightening modern cancel culture.)
    Pillory I think is the term, though the revolving part may have been an innovation for the film (?).

    I haven’t re-read the novel in decades and I wish I could read it in French, but mine isn’t good enough for a Hugo novel. I read it first in Portuguese and years later in English. The novel starts with Gringoire, then introduces Esmeralda who saves him from harm from the King of Beggars by “marrying“ Gringoire. There are miles of prose and lengthy descriptions of everything.

    Quasimodo is one just of the main characters - the original is called Notre Dame de Paris. However, around the world it’s translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    The films necessarily distill the novel to the Frollo-Esmeralda-Quasimodo triangle. Even Gringoire and Phoebus are incidental.
    Last edited by MAS; Aug-16-2020 at 01:51.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Christabel View Post
    That scene of him on the revolving platform (I've forgotten the correct name for this device), being ridiculed by the crowds, and being given water by Esmeralda is apposite and has been burned into my memory since childhood.
    Maybe someone before me has noticed this and written about it; if so I've never seen it. During that scene, when Esmeralda gives Quasimodo water, the camera angle is such that it looks exactly like he's nursing at her breast (check it out).

    Of course, some may balk at this notion and argue that any such resemblance is purely accidental. To them I would point out that every piece of footage in a film is viewed innumerable times in post-production before a film's release; under those circumstances, I find it impossible to believe no one noticed what was going on at such a key moment in the story. And why wouldn't they try to sneak it past the censors? After all, the idea is symbolically apt, as the motherless orphan Quasimodo finally receives the nurturing compassion he has never known.
    Last edited by amfortas; Aug-16-2020 at 01:33.
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    Deleted deleted deleted.
    Last edited by MAS; Aug-16-2020 at 01:49.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MAS View Post
    Pillory I think is the term, though the revolving part may have been an innovation for the film (?).

    I haven’t re-read the novel in decades and I wish I could read it in French, but mine isn’t good enough for a Hugo novel. I read it first in Portuguese and years later in English. The novel starts with Gringoire, then introduces Esmeralda who saves him from harm from the King of Beggars by “marrying“ Gringoire. There are miles of prose and lengthy descriptions of everything.

    Quasimodo is one just of the main characters - the original is called Notre Dame de Paris. However, around the world it’s translated as The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

    The films necessarily distill the novel to the Frollo-Esmeralda-Quasimodo triangle. Even Gringoire and Phoebus are incidental.
    That's it!! Thanks so much.

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    Quote Originally Posted by amfortas View Post
    Maybe someone before me has noticed this and written about it; if so I've never seen it. During that scene, when Esmeralda gives Quasimodo water, the camera angle is such that it looks exactly like he's nursing at her breast (check it out).

    Of course, some may balk at this notion and argue that any such resemblance is purely accidental. To them I would point out that every piece of footage in a film is viewed innumerable times in post-production before a film's release; under those circumstances, I find it impossible to believe no one noticed what was going on at such a key moment in the story. And why wouldn't they try to sneak it past the censors? After all, the idea is symbolically apt, as the motherless orphan Quasimodo finally receives the nurturing compassion he has never known.
    What an intriguing comment. I've looked again and I couldn't see that, but what a stunning piece of cinema. Through the miracle of film restoration Quasimodo's 'body suit' is visible at the neck but no false costume can ever be a substitute for great acting, and Laughton's was straight out of the silent film playbook. Notice the 'love theme' - the dying falls playing when Esmeralda is with Quasimodo in this scene and in the earlier one with her lover, Gringore.

    Joseph H. August was the DP on this film and his chiaroscuro lighting is wonderful. I note August died prematurely at age 57 years just after the war. Some films just need to be in monochrome and this is one of them. The look of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is just gorgeous.

    And to think .... we nearly lost that edifice in Paris last year.
    Last edited by Christabel; Aug-16-2020 at 09:28.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Christabel View Post
    And to think .... we nearly lost that edifice in Paris last year.
    It's still not certain that it can be saved. There are significant structural issues and the cost of rehabilitation is shocking. With all the crap going on in the world, I fear that Notre Dame's status is not a top priority. And there are many people, even in France, who would love to see it fall to ruins. What a world.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mbhaub View Post
    It's still not certain that it can be saved. There are significant structural issues and the cost of rehabilitation is shocking. With all the crap going on in the world, I fear that Notre Dame's status is not a top priority. And there are many people, even in France, who would love to see it fall to ruins. What a world.
    I didn't get that impression in May, 2019 when it was burning and the people of Paris turned out in droves - and despair!! However you're probably right; there would be many in France who are of a different religious persuasion - or of none - who'd be completely indifferent if it fell into ruin. Another cathedral was deliberately set afire only recently in France, so the warning is out.

    As of now, though, the French President seems committed to the preservation of Notre Dame. It's really a question of money; none of those promises seemed to have come to anything. I'm so glad I attended Sunday mass there in May, 2009 with Olivier Latry up in the organ loft and a free recital by an American organist (Baker) that afternoon - just 10 years prior to the fire.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Christabel View Post
    I didn't get that impression in May, 2019 when it was burning and the people of Paris turned out in droves - and despair!! However you're probably right; there would be many in France who are of a different religious persuasion - or of none - who'd be completely indifferent if it fell into ruin. Another cathedral was deliberately set afire only recently in France, so the warning is out.

    As of now, though, the French President seems committed to the preservation of Notre Dame. It's really a question of money; none of those promises seemed to have come to anything. I'm so glad I attended Sunday mass there in May, 2009 with Olivier Latry up in the organ loft and a free recital by an American organist (Baker) that afternoon - just 10 years prior to the fire.
    I think Norte Dame de Paris is much more than a Catholic symbol. It's a national monument and a point of pride for Paris and all of France. There were millions collected in donations after that fire, from all over the world and pledges of over €1 billion. The fire was acidental, according to the investigation, probably due to faulty wiring (!). Work was being done near the roof of the cathedral that may have contributed to the fire hazard.
    Last edited by MAS; Aug-18-2020 at 23:24.

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