Light Your Torches and Pull up Your Tights for Lon Chaney’s Mammoth Epic



When Disney announced that it would be releasing an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s seminal 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a fair number of folks wondered how on Earth the studio would make that novel into a family friendly “animated classic”.  That version came and went back in 1996; it’s merely moderate reception enough to solidify the fact that Disney’s New Golden Age of The Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast/Aladdin/The Lion King had truly ended with the previous year’s Pocahontas.

That adaptation of Hunchback may be the most recent, but it likely isn’t the biggest film version to garner pre-release skepticism.  That honor would, no doubt, go to Universal’s 1923 “Super Jewel” of the same title, headlined by then-superstar Lon Chaney.  The sheer enormity of the film- including incredibly ornate, terrifically large, re-creations of sections of Paris’ centuries-old Notre Dame Cathedral (which stood in Hollywood for years after the fact)- is not only an enhancement of any adaptation, but also essential.  After all, presenting the sheer beauty and wonder of the famed building itself was a primary point of Hugo in writing the story in the first place.  The film follows suit, immediately proclaiming the grandeur of the structure as “the enduring monument to a mighty faith”.  This is something that anyone who’s ever seen the cathedral in person cannot deny.

The 1923 film, as directed by Wallace Worsley, though not quite attaining such heights, is nothing to dismiss.  Despite its overt budgetary expanse, Worsley does not distill the book’s unpleasantries.  That’s not to say that this silent-era depiction of Hunchback is a beat-for-beat adaptation of Hugo’s classic, but one certainly comes away with a more accurate impression than the one with the singing gargoyles.  (To quote Buffy Summers).

Lon Chaney as the half blind, deaf, and malformed Quasimodo rises to the A-list occasion of this endeavor.  Once again, he emerges as unrecognizable under custom makeup of his own design and implementation.  His layers of facial prosthetics sealed with a garishly lowered false eye no doubt left audiences of the day unsettled.  That’s to say nothing of the deliberately weighted hump that Chaney committed to wearing in order to physically affect his posture and stride.  (The hump was, however, nowhere as heavy as legend has it).  Underneath it all, though, are the devoted and absolute skills of not just a man of a thousand faces, but a true actor.  It should go without saying that without Chaney’s level of heartache within his performance, all of the filmmaker’s other gargantuan efforts would’ve been for naught.

Patsy Ruth Miller fits the bill as Esmeralda, the sixteen-year-old street dancer who’s lusted after by at least three men, including Quasimodo.  She first catches his eye when she offers him water following his very public binding.  As is the case with so many guys, Esmeralda’s simple gesture is taken as something more.  The heroine, pulled in several directions in regard to whom she’ll end up with, fuels the overall dark drama of the appropriately gothic piece.  Miller joins most of the period-clad cast in what many may dismiss as histrionic “silent movie acting”, throwing back her head with a swing of her arm, and whatnot.  These frequent displays of melodrama may well prove insurmountable to contemporary viewers that are, for whatever reason, not already silent film buffs.  It must be said, however, that Chaney, by virtue of his fantastical visage and physicality, wholly escapes any such scrutiny.

Kino Classics has released a fine blu-ray edition of this 1923 “Photoplay extraordinary”, offering collectors a more budget-friendly option than the film’s 2014 Flicker Alley release.  Kino, however, does not skimp here on quality in any department.  Fans of this silent-era classic will be quite pleased with this new 4K color tinted restoration.  While the significant aging of this title cannot (and agriably should not) be “smoothed over”, this Hunchback looks remarkably good.

The first thing anyone opening the blu-ray package will notice is a nice booklet containing photos and an essay by film historian Michael F. Blake, who provided an audio commentary on the Flicker Alley version.  In place of Blake’s commentary we have a brand new track by film critic and great admirer of this film, Farran Smith Nehme.  Smith Nehme is once again eloquent, highly informed, and inherently listenable.  She may adore Worsley’s film more than most, but that is not at all a bad thing.

Rounding things out is a vintage newsreel entitled “Life in Hollywood”, showcasing some Lon Chaney home movie footage.  In it, we glimpse just how non-monstrous the man appeared in real life.  Additionally, there are short slideshows of nearly 100-year-old production correspondences and production stills.  The film’s score by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum & Laura Karpman is a dynamic, full-bodied keeper.

For all of the grandeur, detail, and enormity of 1482 Paris depicted in this prestigious undertaking, this is, first and last, Lon Chaney’s show.  It’s his presence and his 110-percent devotion to portraying Quasimodo that fuels this version of Hunchback to culturally persist when so many subsequent adaptations have been forgotten.  Though it’s not him actually doing the big rope swing at the story’s climax, by that point Chaney’s twisted bell ringer, in all his pathetic rage and heaped-on abuse, has earned our full attention.  As has this important blu-ray release.