It’s 1939 – THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 25th successful year! Steve and I collaborated last Spring on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and I’ve been writing a regular monthly movie-related column since then. Since there is no on-line version of The Globe, I will be posting all of my articles here at We Are Movie Geeks. When Steve informed me that this month’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat was to take place in 1939, often labeled “Hollywood’s Greatest Year”, I knew the possibilities were immense. GONE WITH THE WIND, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, OF MICE AND MEN, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, NINOTCHKA, STAGECOACH, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and YOUNG MR. LINCOLN were just some of the famous films from that year. I decided to focus on THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME just because it’s a version of the film I had not seen in many years, and since I’m partial to the Lon Chaney 1923 version, I thought it would be a good movie to revisit and research.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has been filmed yet again and this time with Charles Laughton is in the title role. Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, the story of a deformed bell-ringer’s love for a beautiful gypsy woman amidst the turmoil in France under King Louis XI was originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris and has been a beloved classic for over 100 years. Its depiction of late 15th century Paris inspired a renewed interest in Gothic architecture and even led to major renovations at the Paris cathedral which had been damaged during the French Revolution in 1793. The book’s popularity contributed to the use of the hunchback’s name, Quasimodo, as a word indicating a big heart obscured by a frightful appearance. This newest film adaption is the first sound version of the novel which has been filmed five times silently. The first version ESMERALDA was directed by Alice Guy in 1905 and starred Denise Becker in the title role and Henri Vorins as Quasimodo. That version ran just ten minutes. NOTRE DAME DE PARIS was the title of a 30-minute French version shot in 1911, with Henri Krauss and Stacia Napierkowska in the leads. Hollywood first adapted the story in 1917 as THE DARLING OF PARIS with legendary silent screen vamp Theda Bara as Esmeralda and Glen White as the deformed bell ringer. A British version, ESMERALDA, was produced in 1922 with Sybil Thorndike in the title role and Booth Conway as Quasimodo. The most acclaimed silent version came from Universal in 1923 with Lon Chaney’s extensive makeup and soulful performance, which launched him from character actor to horror superstar. St. Louis-born Patsy Ruth Miller co-starred as Esmeralda with Wallace Worsley directing. This version was praised for its extravagant sets and epic storytelling.
In 1932, Universal Studios announced a new version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME with resident monster star Boris Karloff in the role of Quasimodo with a script by John Huston but the project never went before the cameras. MGM also considered a film version starring Peter Lorre in 1937. The idea of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo was first advanced by MGM head Irving G. Thalberg in 1934, when his wife Norma Shearer became friends with the actor when they costarred in the costume drama THE BARRETTS OF WIMPOLE STREET. HUNCHBACK was a film the producer had planned on mounting with his soon-to-be-formed independent production company but those plans were dashed when Thalberg died in 1936 at age 37 after a lifetime of heart ailments. The remake of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME had been a pet project of RKO producer Pandro S. Berman who saw the project as a prestige picture, one to raise the studio’s profile in Hollywood, where it was beginning to develop a reputation as a studio whose own films took a backseat to the ones it released from independent producers such as Walt Disney and David O. Selznick. Oscar winner Charles Laughton, who had recently signed a contract with RKO, was Berman’s first choice for the title role but he was thought to be unavailable as he was committed to starring in a film version of Cyrano de Bergerac for MGM. Bela Lugosi, Claude Rains, Orson Welles, Paul Muni and Lon Chaney, Jr. were among the actors discussed to essay the role of the Hunchback though it never got as far as the screen-test stage. When the Cyrano de Bergerac project fell through, Laughton quickly signed on to play Quasimodo. Having worked with Maureen O’Hara in JAMAICA INN, which was filmed in London last year by famed British director Alfred Hitchcock (currently filming his first Hollywood production REBECCA for producer David Selznick), Charles Laughton insisted that the Irish actress would be the perfect Esmeralda for the film. Laughton had seen a screen test of the 19-year old, red-headed Maureen FitzSimons and reportedly became mesmerized by her beautiful eyes. He convinced her to change her last name to O’Hara and, though she’d had two small film roles in England using her real name, was ‘introduced’ in JAMAICA INN. For the romantic male lead of Gringoire, RKO wanted Basil Rathbone, but Hollywood’s newest Sherlock Holmes was under contract with Universal, who refused to release him. Fortunately for Rathbone, THE HOUND OF THE BASKERSVILLE has proven to be quite a hit, and the actor is scheduled to play Holmes again. Berman had seen the young actor Edmond O’Brien on stage in New York as part of Orson Welles and John Houseman’s Mercury Theatre and invited him to Hollywood to make his film debut as Gringoire. HUNCHBACK also marks the talking film debut of legendary stage actor Walter Hampden, whose interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac, which he performed from 1923 to 1939, is considered one of the most famous of all American theatre productions. Thomas Mitchell, who is having an awfully good year this year, appearing in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, STAGECOACH, and GONE WITH THE WIND, plays two different roles, one credited, one not. Mitchell plays Clopin (credited), leader of the gypsies, and also plays the deaf judge who sentences Quasimodo to the pillory. German director William Dieterle was loaned out from Warner Brothers because of his previous success in handling historical films. Dieterle began his career in German cinema and his style is heavily influenced by German films of the silent era. He came to Hollywood in 1932 where his directorial credits include A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), THE STORY OF LOUIS PASTEUR (1935), and THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (1937).
RKO explicitly wanted to outdo the 1923 silent version of the story, so no expense was spared. At a cost of $1.8 million, this was one of the most expensive films ever made by RKO Pictures. Although the Victor Hugo novel itself has been in the public domain for some time now, RKO still paid $135,000 to Universal for the story rights from the Chaney version, declaring it more a remake of that film than an adaption of the book. The Notre Dame replica alone cost $250,000. 16th century Paris was built on a vast set in the San Fernando Valley even though the cathedral set Universal built for the 1923 adaption is still standing and they probably could have rented that. Much attention was given to advance publicity; no pictures of Laughton in Quasimodo makeup were allowed in any of the promotional materials so that a first-time viewing would be guaranteed to shock audiences. RKO hired leading makeup artist Percy Westmore to supervise the grotesque makeup and Oscar-winning composer Alfred Newman was hired to score the film. The plot of the new THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME differs considerably from that of the original novel. The main difference is the Hollywood ending which finds both Esmeralda and Quasimodo alive at the end, unlike in the novel, in which Esmeralda is hanged and Quasimodo is presumed dead, but two years later a hunchback skeleton is found at her grave site (in the Lon Chaney version, Quasimodo is killed while Esmeralda survives). In the final scene, Quasimodo rests his head against a gargoyle and says, “Why was I not made of stone like thee?”
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has opened to great acclaim. The New York Times declared: “There has seldom been bettered as an evocation of medieval life, while Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the grotesque Quasimodo makes even that of Lon Chaney seem feeble” and Variety wrote: “Parading vivid and gruesome horror, with background of elaborate medieval pageantry and mob scenes, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is a super thriller-chiller”. In June of this year, French film pioneer Louis Lumiere agreed to be the president of a major new international film festival, one to be held throughout the month September and known as “Le Festival International de Cannes” or The Cannes Film Festival. This festival was organized in response to the interference of the fascist governments of Italy and Germany in the selection of films for the acclaimed Venice Film Festival which began seven years ago. Unfortunately for the filmmakers involved in the festival, the Germans attacked Poland on September 1st. This was followed by the declaration of war against Germany by France and the United Kingdom on September 3rd, so the first edition of this film festival was shut down after its first day. The only film screened before the first Cannes Film Festival prematurely ended was THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was RKO’s last release of the decade (and second costliest in its history, next to GUNGA DIN from the same year). Although it premiered about the same time as GONE WITH THE WIND, it did well at the box office, grossing $3.2 million, an impressive figure for that time. It received just two Oscar nominations, Alfred Newman’s score and John Aalberg’s sound, but won neither. Victor Hugo’s story was filmed several more times, most notably in 1956 with Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida and as a Disney animated musical in 1997 with a Quasimodo with looks directly inspired by Laughton’s creation. In the ’60s, Quasimodo joined Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman as a merchandised monster for kids, scoring his own Aurora monster model and other toys. The Cannes Film Festival restarted in 1946. Charles Laughton died in 1962 of kidney cancer at age 63. Maureen O’Hara went on to a long and accomplished career in Hollywood, often working with John Wayne and John Ford and is, as of this writing, still alive and well at age 91.