The Hunchback of Notre Dame – USA, 1923

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1923 American film directed by Wallace Worsley and produced by Carl Laemmle and Irving Thalberg. It stars Lon Chaney, Sr.Patsy Ruth MillerNorman KerryNigel de BrulierBrandon Hurst. The film is probably the second most famous adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, following the critically acclaimed, much reissued 1939 masterpiece by RKO Pictures. The film was Universal’s “Super Jewel” of 1923 and was their most successful silent film, grossing over $3 million.

The film is most notable for the grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as Lon Chaney’s performance and spectacular make-up as the tortured bell-ringer of Notre Dame. The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood. It also helped set a standard for many later horror films, including Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera in 1925. In 1951, the film entered the public domain (in the USA) due to the claimants failure to renew its copyright registration in the 28th year after publication

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Quasimodo is a deformed (deaf and half-blind) bell-ringer of the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. His master, Jehan Frollo, the evil brother of the saintly archdeacon, Dom Claude Frollo, prevails upon the hunchback to kidnap the fair Esmeralda, the adopted daughter of Clopin, who is the king of the oppressed beggars of Paris’ underworld. The dashing Captain Phoebus rescues her from Quasimodo, while Jehan escapes and leaves him. Phoebus is entranced by Esmeralda, and takes her under his wing. Quasimodo is sentenced to be lashed in the public square. As he suffers under the sting of the whip, Esmeralda pities him, and brings him water. Quasimodo later hates Jehan for betraying him.

Jehan and Clopin both learn that Phoebus plans to wed Esmeralda. Clopin leads the beggars into the house of Phoebus’ fiance, where Phoebus has brought Esmeralda and disguised her as royalty. Clopin demands Esmeralda be returned, and Phoebus only does so after Esmeralda says that she does not belong with the aristocracy. However, Esmeralda sends him a note, to say goodbye to him a last time. During their meeting in Notre Dame, Jehan stabs and wounds Phoebus and lays the blame on Esmeralda. She is sentenced to death, but is rescued from the gallows by Quasimodo and takes refuge in the cathedral, where Dom Claude invokes the sacred right of sanctuary, protecting her from arrest. Clopin leads the whole of the underworld to storm the cathedral that night, while crafty Jehan attempts to loot the treasure vaults. Quasimodo routs the invaders with rocks and torrents of molten lead but can he save himself and Esmerelda?

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Original prints of the film were on cellulose nitrate film stock and were either worn out, decomposed or were destroyed by the studio (mostly the latter). Original prints were on tinted film stock in various colors, including sunshine, amber, rose, lavender and blue.

The only surviving prints of the film are 16 mm “show-at-home” prints distributed by Universal in the 1920s and 1930s for home-movie purposes, and no original 35mm negatives or prints survive. Most video editions (including public domain releases) of the film are derived from 16 mm duplicate prints that were distributed by Blackhawk Films in the 1960s and 1970s. A DVD release of a newly restored print of the film was released by Image Entertainment on October 9, 2007.

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Contrary to publicity largely spread by Chaney at the time, the hump only weighed approximately 10-15 lbs and did not cause the torturous pain that he declared he suffered.

Lon Chaney’s salary on the film was $2,500 a week. Chaney ended up making close to $60,000 plus contract bonuses from the picture, which was the longest shoot in his career.

The lavish, sprawling set, covered much of Universal’s lot with 750 technicians working on the film, including 105 electricians. Carpenters and masons constructed the cathedral set, which remained standing until destroyed by fire in 1967.

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