King Louis XI is a wise and old king and Frollo is the Chief Justice. Frollo gazes on the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, in the church during Fool's Day and sends Quasimodo to catch her. Quasimodo, with the girl, is captured by Phoebus, Captain of the Guards, who frees the girl. The courts sentence Quasimodo to be flogged, and the only one who will give him water while he is tied in the square is Esmeralda. Later, at a party of nobles, Esmeralda again meets both Frollo, who is bewitched by her, and Phoebus. When Phoebus is stabbed to death, Esmeralda is accused of the murder, convicted by the court and sentenced to hang. Clopin, King of the Beggars; Gringoire, Esmeralda's husband; and Quasimodo, the bellringer, all try different ways to save her from the gallows. Written by
Tony Fontana <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Though the French have done many versions of Victor Hugo's celebrated classic, this version starring Charles Laughton has certainly stood the test of time and is the best known and loved in the English speaking world.
Lon Chaney, Sr. did an acclaimed silent version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Laughton was following a great tradition. And he did it in the manner of Chaney, almost without dialog. Not that Hugo wrote too much dialog for Quasimodo in his story, but except for his time with Esmerelda in the tower after he rescues her, Laughton is almost speechless in the film. Of course his character in addition to being deformed is also deaf from the ringing of those cathedral bells.
Quasimodo born deformed as he was, was left as an orphan on the steps of the Notre Dame cathedral in medieval Paris. Raised in the sheltered atmosphere of the church, he derives some joy in his duties as the bell ringer in the tower. His mentor is the brother of the archbishop played by Cedric Hardwicke and the archbishop is Walter Hampden. Quasimodo's life is useful, but without love.
But Laughton is crushing out on Esmerelda the gypsy girl played by Maureen O'Hara in her American screen debut. Problem is that Hardwicke is also getting hot and bothered by her.
Hardwicke's role is the second best acted in the film next to Laughton's. He's a man with shall we say some issues. He's purportedly committed to the church and it's celibacy requirements. But Dr. Freud wasn't around back in the day of Louis XI to tell us about sex drives. Hardwicke's desires mean only one thing, Esmerelda has to have bewitched him. When he kills Alan Marshal who is also interested in Maureen and looks like he's about to round third so to speak, the blame goes on Maureen.
What I like about the story is how the lives of two very ordinary people, Quasimodo and Esmerelda, become the focal point for a whole lot of religious and political issues of the day. The church, the peasants, the just developing middle class, and the nobility all have an agenda as far as the Esmerelda murder case is going. The only agenda poor Quasimodo has is he's in love with her.
Maureen O'Hara who was a discovery of Charles Laughton back in the United Kingdom was pushed by Laughton for the role of Esmerelda and traveled with him to America to play the part. She was grateful to him ever afterwards for any career she had and can't praise him enough for getting RKO to sign her.
Harry Davenport probably plays the most benign Louis XI ever put on film. It sure is a far cry from Basil Rathbone in If I Were King or Robert Morley in Quentin Durward. He plays him like the kindly grandfather he usually plays on screen.
Thomas Mitchell as Clopin the king of beggars and Edmond O'Brien as Gringoire the poet are two other significant roles. O'Brien gets his first substantial role on screen in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and this was a banner year for Thomas Mitchell. In 1939 he was also in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone With the Wind and Stagecoach for which he won Best Supporting Actor. He could have though for any one of these films.
When all is said and done though the film belongs to Charles Laughton who was the screen's best portrayer of tortured humanity. Even beneath all of Bud Westmore's grotesque make-up we can feel his anguish. He's not a stupid man Quasimodo, he knows how repulsive he is to most of the human race. He's childlike though, something like Peter Sellers in Being There, another character raised in a secluded atmosphere.
To see Charles Laughton at the top of his game in my humble opinion one has to see The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
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