Director: Wallace Worsley. Universal.
Producers: Carl Laemmle, Irving Thalberg. Writer: Edward T. Lowe, Jr. Camera: Robert Newhard. Sets: E.E. Shelley, Sydney Ullman.
Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Kate Lester, Winifred Bryson, Nigel De Brulier, Brandon Hurst, Ernest Torrance, Tully Marshall, Harry van Meter, Raymond Hatton.
Paris, 1482: Set against the backdrop of growing public resentment at the laws and dictates of King Louis XI (Marshall), Quasimodo (Chaney) a deformed bell ringer at Notre Dame cathedral falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmerelda (Miller). When Esmerelda is tried with the attempted murder of her lover, the soldier Phoebus (Kerry), he attempts to rescue her as revolution erupts beneath his beloved cathedral.
Caution, literary respect and a fair degree of common sense are thrown to the wind in the great grand-daddy of all adaptations of Victor Hugo’s mammoth and largely unexciting romantic epic (were all of those chapters about Gothic architecture really necessary?).
‘The Man of a Thousand Faces’ Chaney headlines as the poor, mis-shapen campanologist, though it is not one of his better turns.
The hasty editing, particularly in the horrifically rushed introductory scenes (possibly down to there being several versions of the film of differing lengths around the world – not uncommon for silent movies) leads to a large amount of information about characters, themes and sub-plots being whisked by the viewer in quick succession. Hugo’s book is a feat for any screen-writer to compress so it is probably not surprising that sections were skipped or skimmed over, but the irritating over use of title cards to sum up whole people and their motivations when this could have been expressed to the camera shows either poor directorial skills on the part of Worsley or nonexistent talent when wielding the scissors in the cutting room.
We also miss out on those subtle, telling aspects of the story, such as Quasimodo’s dependent relationship with his master Frollo, but the sound era would help rectify such things.
Another thing the sound era would help clear up, is that implausibility that silent movies tended to lean toward, those moments that don’t really make sense. Quasimodo, after being described as totally deaf and half blind, is immediately seen spying on the crowd assembled a hundred feet below and is able to pick out the people insulting him, as the bells of the cathedral ring behind him.
One thing Worlsey really misses a trick with are these crowd scenes. Later versions, including Disney’s animated go in 1996, use the crowd as an integral part of the story, as if it is a living organism, swelling en masse at various points with a fluid motion. Despite the alleged 3,500 extras used in this film, these moments seem empty, slightly scrappy, as if the man with the megaphone in his hand is whispering in the wrong direction.
On the acting front, and again to be democratic, it is difficult to see whether this a poor choice of cast (Miller and Kerry were never top flight actors of this period) or if Worsley was unable to elicit more innovative, subtle performances from his ensemble. Chaney is supposed to be the man of the moment here but his turn is on the edge of over melodramatic. He never really evinces true sympathy, though it doesn’t help that the titles spell him out as being something of a bad one, consumed with hatred for the citizens of Paris who despise his deformity (the novel and subsequent adaptations do not dwell on this).
There are some superb displays of villainy though; De Brulier as Don Claudio (Claude Frollo in the novel) is genuinely creepy and Torrance proves why he became one of the most famous of silent bad guys as Clopin, King of Thieves.
Pity poor Kerry though, who would spend most of the next six years playing second fiddle to Chaney (he would do so again in The Phantom of the Opera two years later and The Unknown in 1927).
Universal provide the means to an end to recreate Paris with a lavish eye, including the quick glimpses we get of the fetid underground sewers and Court of Miracles. This is described as a place where the blind see and the lame walk, rather like a medieval Atos assessment centre.