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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Ultimate Edition

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Image / Blackhawk
1923 / B&W / 1:33 flat full frame / 117 min. / Street Date October 9, 2007 / 24.99
Starring Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Ernest Torrance, Tully Marshaly
Cinematography Robert S. Newhard
Art Direction E.E. Sheeley, S. Uliman
Film Editor Sydney Singerman, Maurice Pivar, Edward Curtis
Written by Perley Sheehan, Edward Lowe, Jr. from the novel by Victor Hugo
Produced by
Directed by Wallace Worsley

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Attractive prints of Lon Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera are now available, and the Turner Classic Movies cable channel shows a number of once-rare Chaney classics like Dr. Wu and Tell it to The Marines. Chaney's breakthrough silent epic The Hunchback of Notre Dame now exists only in 16mm prints, and mostly in a digest version. David Shepard, owner of the Blackhawk Films library, has been producing fine restorations of near-lost films under his Film Preservation Associates banner. Not long after the release of an earlier Image disc, Shepard came into possession of an even better print source. Two years later comes this 'Ultimate Edition', the best-looking version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame yet.

Until its conclusion, Chaney's Hunchback is a fairly faithful simplification of Victor Hugo's elaborate historical romance. A straight pageant with few cinematic touches, the entire show belongs to Lon Chaney and his magnetic characterization. While the other characters are established in florid inter-titles, Chaney's expressive mime earns rather than demands audience sympathy as the misshapen Quasimodo. Chaney's physical transformation is so convincing, patrons could be forgiven for believing that he could magically change his shape to fit his horrid characters.


Feeble minded hunchback Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) is crowned King of the Fools on a big Paris festival day. The beggar chieftain Clopin (Ernest Torrence) dispatches his thieves and fake beggars to work the crowd while his adopted daughter Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) entertains as a gypsy dancer. She immediately wins the heart of the officer Phoebus (Norman Kerry) while Quasimodo looks on, also struck by her beauty. Esmeralda saves the poet Gringoire (Raymond Hatton) from Clopin's rabble while the unscrupulous Jehan (Brandon Hurst) uses Quasimodo in an attempt to kidnap the dancer. She's rescued by Phoebus and Quasimodo is punished by a public whipping. Clopin's beggars are ready to strike back at the hated aristocrats when the jealous Jehan stabs Phoebus, framing Esmeralda for the crime. Quasimodo saves her from hanging and carries her to the sanctuary of the church. The state and the mob both want Esmeralda, but the hunchback defends Notre Dame from all entry.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame became one of Universal's biggest box office draws of the 1920s, making up in part for earlier expensive disappointments. Its lavish Paris set covered a huge chunk of Universal City and remained as the background for the studio's later cycle of horror pictures. Thousands of extras were filmed before the replica of the Notre Dame cathedral. Elaborate special effects created the illusion of the cathedral's tower and the surrounding city.

Wallace Worsley's dull direction showcases the sets, occasionally finding a good high angle to represent Quasimodo's point of view. Slack storytelling fumbles an entire major subplot. An elaborate extended flashback establishes that Esmeralda is really the kidnapped daughter of a noblewoman, now driven mad with grief. (spoiler) After that buildup we expect a melodramatic revelation, something on the order of Griffith's Orphans of the Storm. The issue is instead resolved in a perfunctory, offhand manner, robbing Esmeralda of a major emotional payoff.

The script uses 'poetic' visuals to convey certain ideas. When Phoebus seduces Esmeralda, we're shown an insect caught in a spider's web (an effect ruined by a redundant inter-title). Another 'visual simile' elides the actual moment of a stabbing: as a knife is drawn, the image cuts to a candle being blown out. When we cut back, the evil deed is done. The famous whipping scene is reduced to almost nothing. The whip flies once, and Quasimodo reacts once. Not one lash occurs on screen, and the scene is over before it begins. Quasimodo topples stones and molten lead from the battlements of the church, but we see few of the consequences the mob below. We have to guess why Clopin is suddenly in such terrible shape.

The original picture almost certainly displayed a great deal more violence. According to expert commentator Michael F. Blake, 1923's censors were to blame. To an editor's eye, it looks very much as if the censorship occurred during a re-cut for Universal's 16mm Show-at-Home prints. One close-up knife wound is still intact, most likely retained because it's the only indication that a stabbing has occurred. Without it we'd never know why the victim later collapses and dies, a major story point.

We've all read about the extremes of Chaney's makeup. A harness under his full body suit held the heavy hump in place and prevented the actor from standing up straight. Quasimodo's deformities are convincing even when he clambers up and down the cathedral exterior. His misshapen face and dead eye must have been a nightmare for audiences of 1923, but the character generates considerable sympathy. His acting style operates on a different plane than the other players, with their poses and static expressions -- the "Man of a Thousand Faces" has found a more direct emotional connection with his audience.

Despite Lon Chaney's presence The Hunchback isn't a horror film. The imposed bittersweet ending softens the downbeat finale of Hugo's book: years later, dungeon keepers find Quasimodo and Esmeralda's skeletal corpses joined in a deathly embrace.

Image and Blackhawk's Ultimate Edition DVD of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is said to be from an original 1924 print that David Shepard acquired almost immediately after the previous Image disc release. It's not clear if it is actually longer because the new copy has been transferred at a slightly lower frame rate. We are told that this copy has original main titles from 1923, as opposed to the 1928 reissue credits on the previous release.

The 16mm source is of very good quality. Although not as sharp as 35mm, the image is stable, with few breaks. Many hairline scratches are visible. Viewers spoiled by other restorations may not perceive that much of an improvement over the older disc. The new disc is definitely sharper, revealing more film damage along with the additional detail. The framing is also improved, with a small amount of extra image on all four sides.

The impressive orchestral score was compiled by Donald Hunsburger and adapted and conducted by Robert Israel in 2006. It greatly adds to the film's sweep and drama.

Shepard's extras add a couple of new items to the contents of previous editions. Michael F. Blake does commentary duty, talking about the film's background and explaining the content of a few missing sections. At one point a dress and shoes for Esmeralda to wear just show up in the cathedral loft; in a lost scene, Quasimodo originally traded a box of candles for them. In a newsreel outtake, Chaney demonstrates how he climbed the cathedral set ("There's not much to it."). An image gallery contains old ads, posters and a large number of original stills.

A sizeable excerpt is presented of a 1913 film called Alas and Alack, in which new Universal player Chaney appears in two roles, one of them a hunchback!

Blake provides the essay for an insert booklet, which is accompanied by a reproduction of the film's original souvenir program. Lastly, about twenty 3-D photos of the sets and Chaney are presented in the red-blue anaglyphic process. Two pair of 3-D glasses are included.

Written with assistance from Gary Teetzel.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Hunchback of Notre Dame rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good -
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Insert essay and commentary by Michael Blake, Chaney biographer, excerpt from 1913 film featuring Chaney, newsreel footage of Chaney on the set, 3-D stills with two sets viewing glasses.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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