Discover the Genius of Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Every week, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

I admit to a certain affection for silent films. I also admit to the difficulty of selling the idea of a film with no spoken dialog or sound effects in this modern age. Luckily for me, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, perhaps Lon Chaney’s most famous outing, just about sells itself.

It’s a story that’s been told and retold ever since Victor Hugo put it to paper in 1831. It had already been made into a film twelve years prior to Universal putting Chaney in the role, but the combination of his brilliant acting skills, the impressive make-up work done to make him into the deformed hero, a moving sound score, massive sets, and incredible characters made this the defining film for the scoliosis-suffering bell-ringer.

Quasimodo is entreated by the evil Jehan to kidnap the beautiful, young gypsy dancer Esmeralda, but when she’s rescued by Phoebus, she falls in love with him and Quasimodo is punished in the public square. Wasting away in the hot sun after being whipped, Esmeralda shows him mercy and compassion by bringing him water. With that act, Quasimodo becomes completely dedicated to her, the only person who’s ever shown him love. In a fit of jealousy, Jehan greatly injures Phoebus, frames Esmeralda and sentences her to death.

Even though it diverts from the original novel, the film is still ultimately a tragic, triumphant story. The heartbreaking effect comes from a dichotomy of scale. On one hand is the epic nature of the set design in which the Cathedral at Notre Dame is the main focus. On the other hand is the small details that Lon Chaney puts into his acting that is ultimately even more stunning that the architecture. Even hampered by a large amount of make-up and a total lack of dialog, Chaney out-acts even some of today’s best. Not to mention most actors in general.

And that make-up design, as odd as it sounds, is one of the reasons that the movie is so impressive and why most see the Hunchback more as a movie monster than the deeply, richly complex sympathetic character that Chaney created. Alongside his reputation playing other monsters, most don’t realize the unrequited love story that propels the movie forward.

The epic sets, the subtle, brilliant acting and the shots are all supported by a moving score that is striking enough to listen to on its own. Without the aid of sound, a bulk of emotion is carried by the music that permeates throughout the entire piece. Obviously, music is a hallmark of the silent film era, but The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘s music stands out as one of the best examples of the time.

It would be easy to say that this film is carried completely on Chaney’s shoulders, but Universal took a great talent and set him as the centerpiece in a sea of strong talent. Wallace Worsley was a veteran director (and actor), Norman Kerry (who played Phoebus) was a major leading man of the time, and Patsy Ruth Miller (who played Esmeralda) was a young rising star. Together, they took a classic story of archetypal heroism and love and created an indelible piece of art that remains breathtaking to this day.

It’s understandable if most young audiences don’t want to give a film that’s in black and white, has an orchestral score and features exactly zero talking the shot it deserves, but I can assure that giving this particular movie just ten minutes to win you over will lead to a new favorite and maybe even an appreciation of silent films that can extend to other features.

A veteran of writing about movies for nearly a decade, Scott Beggs has been the Managing Editor of Film School Rejects since 2009. Despite speculation, he is not actually Walter Mathau's grandson. See? He can't even spell his name right.

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