Director: William Dieterle
Writer: Sonya Levien and Bruno Frank (adaptation); The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Cinematographer: Joseph H. August
by Jon Cvack
Recently on 2019’s Hollywood Round Table, Alfonso Cuarón mentioned that he had a bad time working on Great Expectations, blaming the poor experience on Hollywood. Throughout the interview, Stephen Galloway pressed Cuarón on what he meant by such a thing (just as he did Bradley Cooper on why Beyonce dropped out of A Star is Born (2018), and Marielle Heller on the various drop outs on Can You Ever Forgive Me (2018)). Entering mid-year eight in LA, I recognize the look they each give; which is to protect your social capital by avoiding any juicy details which can embarrass future or present dealmakers. Cuarón went a bit deeper than a carefully worded diversion, explaining that he needed money and was willing to sacrifice his vision in order to accommodate the studios. The adaptation suffered as a result.
Moderately along in my journey through world literature’s greatest books, I recently finished "Don Quixote" (1615; and was bored out of my mind for the vast majority of it). What most great books demonstrate is the necessity of length. What can take over a month to complete forces you to live with particular characters and follow them along an - ideally - grand journey that provides the profound and universal insights that all of the greatest pieces of literature contain. It’s why the old adage that bad books make good movies is so true. It’s a miracle any time a movie can somehow condense the material of a great work into something that retains the message, spirit, and essence.
1939 is known for being one of the greatest years for movies in the history of cinema - The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, Goodbye Mr. Chip, and Ninotchka. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a fascinating story where for the first half it feels as though it would make a far greater read than viewing. I haven’t ever seen the Disney version, though it’s when I piece together what the story is about, that I’m all the more impressed that Disney adapted what is a fairly serious and political tale.
The film takes place in 15th Century France against the historic backdrop of an overdue peace after the Hundred Years War. To avoid the arduous task of rehashing the plot (this is where I imagine the book resolves the problem of cramming in too much information), essentially there are three rungs of society we follow - the common people, the nobility (specifically the courts), and the clergy which is located in the legendary Notre Dame cathedral, where the deformed hunchback Quasimodo lives, played by Charles Laughton (who makes the film worth a viewing alone), works as the bell ringer.
Within the city are a band of dispersed gypsies, unwelcome by the government and people, including the beautiful Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara). Meanwhile, the local Chief Justice Jean Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) wants to do all in his power to prevent the burgeoning printing press, led by Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien), from moving forward; concerned that the masses couldn’t possibly handle the truth they might read and therefore end up causing a revolution that could destabilize the entire country which has finally achieved peace. He also leads the cause in getting the gypsies out of town by the age old tactic of stoking fear in the masses that they’re evil, diseased, and not to be trusted. Attempting to have his guards chase her and the other gypsies out of the city, Esmeralda takes refuge in Notre Dame. She meets Quasimodo, and terrified of his deformity, runs out in fear, while Quasimodo falls in love. Esmeralda finds Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) who vows to help her, making the mistake of sending his guards in to arrest Quasimodo rather than Frollo.
Quasimodo is subject to twenty lashes in the town square, followed by a public shaming where the citizens throw their stale vegetables, rocks, and excrement at him. Only Esmeralda offers to help, providing him a sip of water. Later, Esmeralda attends a party where Frollo admits his feelings for her. Uninterested and uncomfortable, she ends up with Phoebus in a field; in which Frollo then sneaks up and kills him. The movie makes the scene a bit unclear, as it seems like they deliberately left out the specifics of what happened - as I actually took it as Phoebus raping Esmeralda who then killed him out of self defense.
Either way, the next day Frollo accuses Esmeralda of murder, who’s then arrested and put on trial, quickly finding her guilty. Facing the Frollo led court, King Louis XI shows up, and sensing the injustice, gives her a 50/50 way out by - while blindfolded - choosing between the king’s dagger and the dagger that killed Phoebus. The wrong choice resulting in death. This was another confusing part of the film, as it seemed like a ridiculous game of chance taken by the King to save the girl. Esmeralda chooses poorly and is sentenced to a death by hanging. Upon the gallows and with the rope around her neck, Quasimodo swings out to save her moments before death.
He brings up to Notre Dame’s Bell Tower, where he attempts to flirt by showing off his ringing skills, frightening Esmeralda who’s overwhelmed by the sounds; providing the film’s best scene. According to law, Notre Dame is a sanctuary, but given the trial’s attention, the people want to override that power.
Gringoire gets out a pamphlet that they hope can dissuade this action; attempting to reason with the courts and calm the mob. Getting his hands on the pamphlet, the King realizes that public opinion would be helpful in governance should they use the press to their advantage, all while Frollo continues to criticize the press as threatening their power.
The people attack the church, and soon get into the church while Quasimodo fights them off by dropping stones, bricks, and hot oil. Soon Frollo gets up to the tower, hoping to kill Quasimodo who later throws him off. Due to the pamphlet, the King then pardons Esmeralda who finally meets Gringoire and the two leave off together; leaving Quasimodo alone at the church.
I can’t think of a film about a classic novel that so badly made me want to read the book (perhaps Cuaron’s Great Expectations (1998) being the exception). While the movie is okay, it’s piecing together the story that piques my interest. What we see is a tale that’s eerily relevant to today’s world - in which those who wish to retain power attempt to destroy the free press and exploit the masses. Like freed black people from the late 19th century, the Jews from the mid-20th century, the Latinos today, or the Gypsies in this story, it’s increasingly apparent that those in power have always turned the masses against the marginalized and oppressed. While I’m unaware of the specific details, it’s clear that Frollo wanted to use the courts to try and skirt the law in his favor, preventing a free press from ever revealing the truth about his actions, or to learn anything about the group he hoped to villainize.
What I’m left less certain about is Quasimodo, who while a memorable character and with a great performance from Charles Laughton, seems difficult to fully comprehend within such a brief amount of time as compared to a book. It’s easy to see him as a tragic fool; a mentally disabled man with a big heart who saves the day, and yet I’m sure he serves as a far more lucid and fully fleshed character within such a politically rich story. It’s a two hundred year old story like this that I’d want to show to ambiguous Trump supporters; to demonstrate that what we’re experiencing is not unique, and in fact, is not all that inspired. We have so much literature to comprehend the dangers of the president. It’s a tale as old as time.
BELOW: Best scene of the flick
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