Deaf and half-blind, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, feared & rejected by the people of Paris, becomes the unlikely protector of a poor gypsy girl.
Lon Chaney, master of disguise, solidified his celebrity with his portrayal of Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer, who is forever cut off from any semblance of a normal life. Although his makeup is certainly horrific, Chaney’s role is not really monstrous: he is a lonely human desperately misused by Fate. Chaney’s face speaks for him, communicating the tormenting anguish of his soul. While not quite as poignant as Charles Laughton’s interpretation 16 years later, Chaney still makes of the role a Silent hallmark which has stood the test of time.
There are fairly lengthy segments in which Chaney does not appear and plot elements not explored in the longer Laughton version. Here the story dwells on the gypsy dancer Esmeralda, played by Patsy Ruth Miller, and her burgeoning romance with the brave Phoebus, Captain of the Guard, played by Norman Kerry. Both performers do very well with their ‘normal’ roles — her innocence contrasting well with his initial lust — even though the viewer is doubtless anxious for the return of the Hunchback.
A handful of excellent character actors from the era add their assistance: gaunt Nigel de Brulier as the saintly Archdeacon, defender of the Hunchback; beefy Ernest Torrence as Clopin, King of Thieves, ruling over the Court of Miracles; prissy Raymond Hatton as the effete poet Gringoire; and feeble Tully Marshall as a suspicious Louis XI.
Special mention must be made of Universal’s splendid attention to detail which they lavished on the film. Most especially commendable is the representation of Notre Dame’s West Facade, the only real angle from which the Cathedral’s exterior is depicted. To see Chaney clamber down, swinging from pinnacle to gargoyle to statue; or, to watch Quasimodo defend Esmeralda from the crowd of beggars he thinks has come to kill her, dropping stones, beams and molten metal on their heads below from the Cathedral’s ramparts, is to enjoy two of Silent Cinema’s great visual moments.