Monday, October 5, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

I was actually slightly disappointed by "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Yes, it features Charles Laughton in the title role of Quasimodo, and he's an actor I knew only through his later roles and am relishing discovering his vibrant work as a young man. And yes, the production values, particularly for 1939, are simply astonishing. The crowd scenes in the square involve hundreds of extras, costumes, stunts and huge, intricate sets. It also features Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda in her first starring role, absolutely ravishing even at age 19.

Still, the movie contains too much of the stilted, overly theatrical style of acting that dominated many early films. The majority of thespians still got their start on the stage in those days, and the tendency to over-emote and over-enunciate dialogue makes you feel like you're sitting in the back row, and the actor is straining to make himself heard by you.

In particular, the performance of Edmond O'Brien as the poet Gringoire irked me whenever he came on the screen. Alan Marshal as Phoebus, the captain of the guard, also falls into this trap, although with much less screen time, he has fewer opportunities to annoy.

Cedric Hardwicke also makes for a less-than-daunting Frollo, the twisted chief justice who is the hunchback's protector as well as tormentor. When Frollo falls for the gypsy girl Esmeralda, despite the fact that she represents everything he hates about freedom and tolerance, it should burn him from the inside out. But I found Hardwicke rather passive and dour, and certainly not frightening.

Of course, Laughton is a revelation as the hunchback. The special make-up is passable even by modern standards, and must've looked quite convincing 70 years ago. There's a short bit where Quasimodo, perhaps unintentionally, covers up the deformed parts of his face with his hands, and we see the handsome and gregarious man he could have been.

Interesting aside -- I've always heard the character's name pronounced as "quah-zee-mo-do," but in this movie the call him "kaz-ee-modo," with the first syllable rhyming with "spaz." Curious to know what is correct.

Victor Hugo's novel has seen many film versions. Laughton was reportedly daunted at the task of playing the character Lon Chaney made famous in the 1923 silent version. Anthony Quinn also tackled the role in a 1956 Italian version, Anthony Hopkins did so in a 1982 TV special, and of course Disney made an animated musical in 1996 with a terrific Frollo voiced by Tony Jay. And there have been numerous other versions here and there.

When one steps back and examines the story from a post-feminist perspective, it begins to look rather discomfiting. Basically, every major male character in the movie falls in love with Esmeralda, and is in some way changed and even damaged by his ardor.

Phoebus sees her as a figure of conquest, and pays for it with his life. Gringoire the poet sees her as the literary counterpart to complete his own romanticized image of himself, and is crushed when she rejects him as a lover. Frollo, of course, hates her for dredging up feelings of desire he thought did not exist in him. He ends up at the conclusion of many a cinematic villain, "If I can't have her, then no man shall!"

Even Quasimodo's affection for Esmeralda is not pure. Although he clearly believes that there can be no romance between them, he still dotes on her like a friendly puppy. The man has hope.

At one point, Quasimodo kills scores of rogues attacking the Cathedral of Notre Dame by pitching stones and pouring molten metal from the high spires. He does so not out of any ideal about the right of sanctuary, one suspects, but simply to prevent others from taking the girl away from him. In his rage he also slays Clopin, the beggar king played by Thomas Mitchell, one of the great character actors of mid-20th century film.

I'd been meaning to see "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for years, which perhaps raised my expectations to an unachievable level. It's a fine film, of course, completely worthy of a rental or catching on TV. Alas, for great expectations that fall short.

3 stars

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