Charles Laughton was one of the greatest screen actors of all time (as well as being a renowned stage performer and acting teacher) and even now it is difficult to shake much of his greatness after stepping away from one of his films. Creating such memorable characters as Dr. Moreau in Island of Lost Souls (1932), Henry VIII in The Private Life of King Henry VIII (1933), Marmaduke Ruggles in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), the notorious Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), Agatha Christie’s determined barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts (and Rumpole-esque) in Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), and Sempronius Gracchus in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), Laughton established himself as a very versatile and respected performer.
Despite being a closted homosexual (although perhaps not so closeted if you saw him in Jamaica Inn), he was married to actress Elsa Lancaster (The Bride of Frankenstein, The Inspector General). He discovered actors like Maureen O’Hara, trained actors like Albert Finney, directed the great Night of the Hunter (1955), and was a much sought after actor himself in his day. Classically trained and very professional, the British thespian also demonstrated a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor with quips like, “I have a face that would stop a sundial.” How fitting he play the infamous hunchback, Quasimodo.
My first introduction to Mr. Laughton came at about age five when I saw German director William Dieterle’s (The Devil and Daniel Webster) interpretation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). With Charles Laughton as the legendary hunchback, Quasimodo, this movie quickly became one of my favorites when I was a kid. All little boys love monsters, horror, and deformity and I most certainly was no exception. Although Laughton’s face and body were caked in prosthetics and makeup he still delivered a fine and heartfelt performance.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame boasts a pretty fine cast that included other great or iconic performers such as leading lady, Maureen O’Hara (The Quiet Man), as the gypsy girl, Esmeralda; ubiquitous character actor, Thomas Mitchell (High Noon), as king of thieves, Clopin; Edmund O’Brien (The Killers), as Gringoire; sinister menace, Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Rope), as the evil Frollo; and old character actor, Harry Davenport (Gone With the Wind), as King Louis XI.
With an impressive budget, hundreds of extras, grand scale, and wonderful performances, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a spectacular spectacle to behold. Most of you already know the story.
Quasimodo is a mysterious, deaf, and deformed bell-ringer for Notre Dame Cathedral. When his pious but tormented master, Frollo, is tempted by the unlawful arrival of the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, he will stop at nothing to have her for himself or destroy her as a minion of Satan. He sends Quasimodo after her, but when the poor hunchback gets caught and blamed for the crime of attempted kidnapping he suffers great public humiliation and torture.
Esmeralda is the only person (besides the good archdeacon played by William Hampden) who shows Quasimodo any kindness and so the hunchback falls in love with her too. The penniless poet, Gringoire, whose life is also saved by Esmeralda also falls in love with her, but Esmeralda’s true feelings lie with the vapid ignoramus and playboy captain of the guard, Phoebus. All four men have fallen under her spell, but they all love her differently and show it in different ways. Some are endearing and noble, some conniving and selfish, and some are heartbreaking to watch.
Amidst the torrid and twisted romances, the film also boasts lots of back-story into the conflicting politics and ideologies of the day. The gypsies are unwanted and outlawed immigrants, the thieves seem to run the streets, the French people are largely bigoted and uneducated, it’s the dawning of the printing press and an age of enlightenment, the King seems to be losing influence, and Frollo seems to be attempting to usurp power and get away with murder and torture while his brother, the archdeacon, watches on—conflicted about betraying his own brother. All the while the lives of little people are continuously stirring the pot until the rousing climax in which the great Cathedral of Notre Dame is stormed and Quasimodo must defend Esmeralda and the right to sanctuary. Ah, Victor Hugo.
As much as I enjoy Disney’s Hunchback (1996) as well as the great silent Lon Chaney, Sr. Hunchback (1923), I still regard the Charles Laughton version to be the finest. All three films tell the story a little bit differently and they each bring something new to the classic tale, but I feel that the 1939 incarnation reveals the most about the complex innerworkings of 1400s Parisian society and politics. It also presents a very clear picture of hypocrisy, mental and emotional anguish (as depicted by the conflict between human desires and the demands of the church and religious fanaticism), prejudice, and social injustice. The finale features them all at war on the steps of Notre Dame. Clopin and the thieves storm the cathedral to rescue Esmeralda from the Nobles who seek to remove sanctuary. The craftsmen and priests attempt to defend it. Frollo sneaks in to kill her. Gringoire prints a petition for the King to sign to save her. And ignorant Quasimodo sits at the top of the battle fighting everyone. It’s all pretty exciting.
Victor Hugo’s original novel is bleak. Severely bleak and depressing, yet elegant, beautiful, and even humorous. Les Miserables much? It’s a wonder anyone would try to adapt this into a movie for mass consumption—especially Disney (and I give them a lot of credit for the complexity they give Frollo in the animated film). While Dieterle’s version is not nearly as emotionally devastating as the book, it retains a very strong note of sadness that echoes within your very soul. It fakes you out. It shows you the happy ending you want, but then they insert that subtle dagger. This movie such an eloquent, bittersweet final shot. For me, the ending is right up there with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and Being There.
For all its spectacle and pageantry, The Hunchback of Notre Dame remains a strikingly human drama and is quite intimate at times. The characters are very complex and the story is allowed to be equally complex. Mr. Hugo would be proud. It’s also one of those rare movies that work wonderfully well both in its original black and white and the colorized version. For anyone interested in seeing a great classic movie or another great Charles Laughton role, I hesitate not to place a sterling recommendation upon The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” August 17, 2009.