It. Is. Time.
I’ll admit, until this blogathon came around, I hadn’t seen any Lon Chaney movies, although I’d seen clips of him. I knew he was a pioneer of both film makeup and horror films, which inspire industry professionals such as Rick Baker to this day. During his life, Chaney was so iconic and mysterious to the public that he sparked tributes such as this:
Yup. Other than that, I knew little about him. I was a Chaney newbie. So, I thought I’d cast around at my local libraries, and struck gold: 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
So, without further ado, we’ll just dive right in.
It’s New Year’s Day, 1482, and the Festival of Fools is in full swing. This was a day when people satirized the Catholic Church by having a raucous party and electing a fake Pope. It was considered so blasphemous that it was officially banned in 1444, but evidently some people didn’t get the memo. As the film portrays it, the Festival of Fools is all about people in party dress parading through the streets and some of them walking funny. There are even two guys in gorilla suits mauling women, who respond by kicking the primate posers in the hineys.
Watching the spectacle from the balcony of the cathedral is Quasimodo, the title character, who’s also deaf and half-blind. For the part, Chaney wore a shirt stuffed with a plaster-of-Paris prosthetic torso and walked almost doubled over. He also wore large prosthetic cheeks, a prosthetic over his eye, with fake snaggle teeth and a messy wig completing the picture. In spite of these encumberments, Chaney freeclimbed down the side of the cathedral, swinging on the gargoyles and landing like a cat. I was waiting for him to climb back up, but Chaney’s character had things to do. Quasimodo and the people of Paris don’t like each other, and Quasimodo spends his time leering and sticking out his tongue at them. It’s hard to tell if he cares that they crown him King of Fools.
Also in the crowd is Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), a beautiful woman who was kidnapped by gypsies as a young child. She’s repulsed by Quasimodo, and only has eyes for Phoebus de Chateaupers (Norman Kerry), the chief of police and a notorious ladies’ man. Phoebus is engaged to Fleur de Lys (Winifred Bryson), who seems a little unnerved by the man she’s supposed to marry. Maybe it’s the Barbra Streisand-ish wig, or his elbow spikes, or maybe Fleur is just playing hard to get. Either way, she tries to fend Phoebus off by pointing out the pretty goat. Phoebus doesn’t notice the goat, of course, but the lady herding the goat, who just happens to be Esmeralda. Fleur realizes her mistake too late, as Phoebus’s interest is suddenly piqued.
Just to keep things exciting, the bishop’s slimy brother, Jehan (Brandon Hurst) and the weaselly King of Beggars, Clopin (Ernest Torrance) are slinking around, plotting something, but the particulars are unclear. Jehan brings Quasimodo along, evidently to give him something to do. Their first nefarious act is to stalk Esmeralda, and while she’s on her way home Jehan grabs her.
Never fear, though: Phoebus is here. He not only rescues Esmeralda, but makes sure she gets home safely. For her part, Esmeralda forgets her ordeal pretty quickly, because she’s had her eye on Phoebus, and he’s finally noticed her. She and Phoebus smile dreamily at each other over supper, which is a bit cloying but understandable, since Esmeralda is living her dream.
Phoebus, being true to himself, tries to seduce Esmeralda, but in the process finds a necklace she’s been wearing since she was a child. All she knows is that her mother put it on her and that it protects her from harm. This seems to wake up Phoebus, who realizes he needs to treat Esmeralda with respect instead of as another conquest, and it sets the stage for him to fall in love with her for real. Poor Fleur.
It also sets the stage for some old-fashioned class warfare. A troubadour, Gringoire (Raymond Hatton) makes the mistake of hanging around the Court of Miracles. This is a place where people pretend to be healed, apparently for the fun of it, but it’s really a hangout for the lowest of the lower class. Clopin drags Gringoire into the center of the mob and accuses him of spying. They’re about to hang the poor guy when Esmeralda steps in and saves him.
This isn’t the last time Esmeralda stands in the gap for someone. Quasimodo is subjected to a public whipping for attempted kidnapping, and Esmeralda brings him a drink after it’s over. The bishop also comes out of Notre Dame and helps him. It’s a really touching scene, because just when it’s hard to feel sorrier for him, it’s shown that Quasimodo does have friends.
Trying to reform his lothario ways, Phoebus invites Esmeralda to a ball Fleur is giving in his honor. Heh, not awkward. Since Esmeralda has nothing suitable to wear, Phoebus provides her with a gown. And introduces her as a princess of Egypt, to boot. The charade would have worked better had Clopin not taken it into his head to get jealous. He thinks that Esmeralda is being wooed into the upper class, and, well, that’s just not to be borne, so he crashes the party, flourishing his cape and backed by an angry mob. He and Phoebus almost throw down, but Esmeralda stops them. She leaves a heartbroken Phoebus behind, pretending she doesn’t love him, but that doesn’t satisfy Clopin.
Esmeralda and Phoebus patch things up, and Clopin, who shall hereafter be referred to as Monsieur Swirly Cape, decides that he’s going to make things as tough as possible for them.
Which he does, but there’s one rival he didn’t reckon with, and that’s Quasimodo.
My first impression of this film was that I wished Chaney had been given more screen time, which he does get in the latter half of the story. Honestly, it’s the best part of Hunchback.
Quasimodo is initially a background character and likes it that way, but life has a way with surprises. One of the things that makes Chaney’s performance so compelling is that as the story progresses, Chaney’s character becomes more beautiful. His makeup doesn’t change; he doesn’t suddenly get relieved of his affirmities, but Quasimodo becomes a different man. The character goes from sneering at the crowd and being Jehan’s pawn to being a force for good. He defends Esmeralda at all costs. He assists the bishop. We see Quasimodo praying. It’s also fun seeing him expressing his emotions through the bells. When Quasimodo is happy, he jumps on to the swinging bell, riding it like a beloved horse, and watching his euphoria is a heady feeling.
I found Chaney mesmerizing. He seemed like a very athletic and engaging performer, and his portrayal of Quasimodo is intriguing. Chaney knew how to repulse, and it goes without saying that he knew how to become a character. Despite layers of padding and prosthetics, the emotion came through, and Chaney played his role with a wonderful naturalness.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a very interesting movie. Most of the acting is pretty hammy (looking at you, Monsieur Swirly Cape!), but Chaney is by far the towering figure. He makes the movie, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work.
This film is available on DVD from Amazon.