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Public Domain Theatre: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Updated on July 25, 2014
Wallace Worsley
Wallace Worsley | Source

Welcome once again to Public Domain Theatre, where we look at films that, for some reason or another, have fallen into the public domain, meaning they can be shown or streamed anywhere free of charge, but in lousy condition as a result.

According to good ol' Wikipedia, today's film, the 1923 adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame, "[In 1951, the film] entered the public domain (in the USA) due to the claimants failure to renew its copyright registration in the 28th year after publication."

This is truly unfortunate, for The Hunchback Notre Dame is not only a fantastically made and directed film, but it served as a legitimate star-making vehicle for legendary silent film star Lon Chaney.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo.
Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. | Source
Lon Chaney as himself.
Lon Chaney as himself. | Source

Lon Chaney has rightfully earned his place in cinema history, not just because of his achievements in classic films, but because of his immeasurable gifts and intriguing life. Raised by deaf parents, Chaney became skilled at pantomime and pursued an acting career at age 19. He became a contract player at Universal in the late 1910s, working his way up from extra to scene-stealing character actor. Chaney had a remarkable talent for makeup, not only doing his own, but selecting his own hairpieces and prosthetic teeth. He frequently played men with disabilities, and the inspiration hit close to home: his wife Hazel had once been married to a man with no legs.

Tiresome Trivia of the Day: The popular legend was that MGM producer Irving Thalberg got the idea of adapting Hunchback, but it was in fact Chaney's idea, possibly as early as 1920. The misconception is made all the more egregious in the 1957 biopic The Man of a Thousand Faces, where the idea is dreamed up by Thalberg… played by a young Robert Evans. Ugh.

Chaney was never one to shy away from suffering for his art. Whenever he played crippled men, he wore braces, corsets, and harnesses that could only be worn twenty minutes at a time. The Hunchback of Notre Dame is no exception, and it has become a veritable "big fish" story of how much the plaster hump on his back weighed (I've read enough sources, and it fluctuates anywhere between 10 and 40 pounds). The make-up used to create Quasimodo's filmy eye permanently ruined his eyesight. But, to me, the most terrifying aspect of Chaney's look were his false teeth. His trusted dentist colleague Dr. James L. Howard created the dentures for the film, and recalled the process:

I made an upper plate to fit over his own teeth, but left the molars [back teeth] off. In the lower jaw I made a plate to go over his own teeth and extend well down on the buccal sides [the sides of the mouth facing the cheek], forcing his cheeks down half an inch, or perhaps three quarters of an inch. I put no teeth in the lower plate, but cut the front out, letting the natural anterior [lower front teeth] show. The effect was exactly what he wanted, but the problem was how to hold the lower contraption in his mouth.

I first got a set of small coil springs, such as those we are told held the historic ivory dentures of George Washington in place. These were by no means strong enough. Then I took two pieces of alarm clock spring, each about two inches long, vulcanizing [hardening] one end of each spring to the upper plate in the molar regions and letting the lower ends slant down and rest on the occlusal [top] ridges of the lower appliance. This caused strong pressure on the lower, and permitted the mouth to open and close, at the same time forcing the muscles of the cheeks down, thereby accomplishing the purpose of characterization (retrieved from A Thousand Faces by Michael Blake, p. 123)."

Yeesh. So does anyone feel like telling me Marlon Brando was the first screen actor to be truly devoted to his craft?

Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller (Esmeralda).
Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller (Esmeralda). | Source

But Chaney's strength is also a liability: the very fact of his genius tends to overshadow the films themselves, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a harshly faithful adaptation to Hugo's novel (save for the ending). There's always been a fascination with the novel, for Quasimodo plays upon our most visceral emotions. We are initially repulsed by his deformities, but he wins our sympathy. Still, he is a trickier character than we realize, for it is tempting to focus too much on his vulnerability, rendering him a one-note teddy bear (poor, foolish Disney). I wouldn't be surprised if there are adaptations that even make him the villain.

The truth is, the silent adaptation paints Quasimodo the way Hugo most likely wanted him to be seen: human. Chaney's Quasimodo has all the failings and idiosyncrasies we all have. Yes, he is a tormented outcast, but he is also embittered and antagonistic towards the people of France (but can you blame him?). He is capable of tenderness towards Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), but is it because of genuine love, or because he's just as bewitched by her beauty as everyone else? He is a sidekick to the evil Jehan (Brandon Hurst). Is it because Jehan shows him something resembling respect, or because Quasimodo likes lashing out at the human race he hates? He is remarkably complicated, so much so I'm amazed Daniel Day-Lewis or Bryan Cranston have never been approached to play him.


It's difficult for me to summarize the story, because there isn't much of one. I view The Hunchback of Notre Dame as a character study, and, hoo boy, what a nasty bunch of characters. In fact, this film unapologetically displays how truly awful the human race can be. Quasimodo is mocked and ridiculed constantly for his looks and deafness (living in a bell tower all your life will do that) by the townspeople, who in turn shun the gypsies. Not that the gypsies are any better, for it is revealed early on that Esmeralda was kidnapped as a toddler from a wealthy woman by gypsies, and the woman went mad from grief. The gypsies are also portrayed as con artists, beggars, and rabble rousers. The captain of the guard, Phoebus (Norman Kerry) is a fatuous womanizer who strings Esmeralda along while being engaged to someone else.

In fact, it is pretty damning that the most innocent characters are Quasimodo (who reacts to dumping hot oil on marauders with childish glee) and Esmeralda, who is nothing more than a cypher who exists only for men to lust after. Still, the tone of the film never feels preachy, more of a world-weary attitude of "yup, that's how people are".

Tiresome Rant of the Day: As much as I rag on the Disney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, I will say that Disney's Esmeralda? Ten flavors of badass and awesome. A tough dame who can take care of herself and who needs a man like a porcupine needs a scrunchie. It's just a shame she's in an adaptation unworthy of her. Change her name, put her in a different movie, and you'd really have something.


Honestly, though, Chaney carries this movie almost single-handedly. The other actors are just unmemorable workhorses, and Miller is guilty of typical, silent film overacting (eye bugging, hair clutching). Chaney truly works from the inside out as Quasimodo, making a sometimes grotesque, sometimes awful, sometimes heart-tugging, always compelling character. Considering this was decades before CGI or the more advanced (and safer) make-up we have today, Chaney's technical brilliance, married with his acting talent, cannot be overstated.

Hopefully, The Hunchback of Notre Dame can be rescued from public domain Purgatory and get the Criterion treatment. It's a lot to ask, but the rewards of a new generation discovering the work of Lon Chaney would be more than worth it.


My Sources



A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney's Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures, Michael F. Blake, The Vestal Press, 1995.

Lon Chaney: Behind the Mask. Dir.Bret Wood. Perf. Patsy Ruth Miller, Lon Chaney. Viacom Media Networks, 1995. Film.


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