The Hunchback of Notre Dame
R0 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (3rd February 2017).
The Film

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923)

On September 2nd 1923 Universal Pictures premiered their epic production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” - based on the famed 1831 novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. With extravagant set designs and a parade of stars and extras, the film became a large hit for Universal Pictures even with its costly $1 million+ budget. At the time of production in the 1920s, studio executives reigned over control of their studio’s productions.

Unusually, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was more an auteuristic work of an actor - Lon Chaney. By the early 192s, Chaney was one of the most prominent figures in Hollywood, making his name since the early 1910s in both shorts and feature films such as “The Piper's Price” (1917), “The Miracle Man” (1919), and many more. His name was recognizable, but what set Chaney apart was his chameleon-like process of transforming into different characters onscreen with groundbreaking make-up techniques, and Chaney was appropriately dubbed “The Man of a Thousand Faces”. Chaney had acquired the rights to adapt Victor Hugo’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and was able to secure Universal to produce. Universal head Carl Laemmle was known to cut costs on production budgets but things were on Chaney’s side as Universal producer Irving Thalberg helped to produce the film on a larger budget as Chaney’s previous works were big hits for the studio. The production was announced in August of 1922 with construction of the sets being a recreation of France in the late 1400s, but a director was not yet confirmed, not had the script been finalized. By the end of the year, director Wallace Worsley had been brought on to the project. Worsley had directed Chaney previously including on the controversial “The Penalty” (1920) and three other productions. As for the script, Edward T. Lowe, Jr. and Perley Poore Sheehan were able to finalize the writing and the cast had been set.

Chaney was cast as the title role of Quasimodo, the hunchback. Under heavy makeup and a deformed bodysuit, the grotesqueness was disturbing but at the same time there was enough of Chaney’s body language to come through to show a sense of humanity and sympathy for the character. The lashing scene in the town square where they tie him up, rip off his shirt and have everyone see the monstrous looking man being tortured is very powerful, even if the audience does not see an actual whip hitting his body but only implied with the editing. John Hurt’s performance as “The Elephant Man” (1980), Boris Karloff as “Frankenstein” (1931) - the performances are undoubtedly influenced by Chaney’s Quasimodo. While Quasimodo stole the show being the main character and the one that goes through the most, there are other highlights including Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda who is the first to sympathize with Quasimodo. Ernest Torrence as Esmeralda’s father and the “King of the Beggars” Clopin is also a highlight to see. Norman Kerry as the righteous Captain Phoebus and the rival Jehan as played by Brandon Hurst are also good in their roles, but nothing can quite live up to Chaney’s performance in the titular role.

As the film was released about one year after the announcement of production, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” became not only one of Univeral’s biggest hits of the time but one of Lon Chaney’s most well known works in his entire filmography. The then 40 year old actor was at the top of his craft and the 1920s continued critically and commercially with films such as “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925), “He Who Gets Slapped” (1924), and the legendary lost film “London After Midnight” (1927), challenging himself in a variety of roles in the silent movie world. Chaney’s most anticipated role was in the remake of “The Unholy Three” (1930) which was his talkie debut - and not to be outdone, Chaney played a ventriloquist doing multiple voices along with a disguised old lady role. Sadly this was Chaney’s only talkie to be made as he died a few months later from throat cancer at the age of 47.

Universal along with many other major studios at the time failed to preserve and secure the copyrights of their early silent films as talkies came along thinking that they were no longer bankable. Prints were discarded or melted down and many titles fell into the public domain by 1951. Only a handful of Chaney-starring Universal feature films survive in complete form. Luckily “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” did survive, but not in the best state. The original negative and 35mm prints no longer exist and the restoration came from surviving 16mm prints. In 2007, under the supervision of silent film preservationists David Shepard and Serge Bromberg a newly restored version of the film was unveiled, with the most complete version of the film with a score by Donald Hunsberger. (Note that some credit the year as 2006 but the DVD restoration credits list 2007 as the year.) Unless a miracle happens and a 35mm print is suddenly uncovered, this is the most complete and best way to view the feature, and considering that most silent films ever made are lost forever and a large amount of Chaney films are of the same fate, the world should be thankful that there was such a man like Chaney to ever grace the screen.

Note this is a region ALL NTSC DVD which can be played back on any DVD or Blu-ray player worldwide

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in in the original (non-anamorphic) 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio in the NTSC format. The transfer comes from the 2007 restoration of the film, retaining the tinted colors and the original intertitle cards. The film has a golden/beige hue through most of the scenes while blue for many of the night scenes and they are faithfully presented here. For many silent films the intertitle cards were lost or replaced - due to heavy damage or because the original English were removed for foreign language intertitles. The original intertitles also very artistic including drawings of the Notre Dame cathedral making the cards stand out from many other silent of the time period.

As stated, the film only survives from existing 16mm prints so the quality of the picture does suffer from many things. There are scratches and debris all over the print which is to be expected as well as slightly juddering images and softness in detail. Fortunately, there are no huge damage marks or missing sequences, making the viewing rather good compared to other silent films which suffer much worse conditions. Another negative note is that the film is slightly windowboxed so there are black bars on all four sides of the frame, so the maximum resolution is not used.

The film runs 117:11. As for the framerate, with silent cinema there is and always will be much debate on how fast or slow the film was to run, as many were handcranked and made before the 24 frames per second standard was set. When the film was released on Blu-ray from Flicker Alley in 2014 the runtime was 109 minutes - with nothing cut. Only the speed of the film was slightly faster than the previous DVD editions.

Audio

Music Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
The 2006 symphonic score by Donald Hunsberger is presented in stereo audio. There is great stereo separation with all instruments coming in clearly. While the audio itself sounds fine, the score seems to be slightly weak compared to the scale of the film itself. A more robust and powerful score is what could have been envisioned.

As stated there are English intertitles for the film and they are fairly easy to read. They are not stillframes so there is some wobbliness but not enough to make things ineligible.

Extras

"Lon Chaney on Set" featurette (1:43)
This short reel was filmed on the set of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” with Chaney out of costume showing off the Notre Dame game setpiece. The intertitles presented here are extremely hard to read with bad contrast but the footage itself is in a watchable state. There is no audio accompaniment.
in 480i NTSC, in non-anamorphic 1.33:1

Image Gallery (6:05)
Presented here is a slideshow gallery of production stills, posters, promo stills, and newspaper ads for the film. Note that the image is very windowboxed with large black borders on all sides of the frame. There is also no audio accompaniment for this extra.
in 480i NTSC, in non-anamorphic 1.33:1

As stated before, there was a Blu-ray release of the film in 2014 by Flicker Alley, but was also criticized for the faster framerate. The discrepancy can be debated but one thing that cannot be debated is that the 2007 score was also sped up to meet the faster runtime sounding nearly cartoonish. Also, when the 2007 restoration was released in the United States on DVD from Image Entertainment, it also included an audio commentary which is sorely missed from this Australian release. As for the transfer, it is identical to the US release. Beware as the film is in the public domain meaning any budget DVD company can release the film and they are almost always in extremely bad quality versions not utilizing the 2007 restoration.

Packaging

The above packaging shot shows the film to have a "G - General" rating which is what is listed on Umbrella Entertainment's website. Though note the retail copies have the "PG - Mild themes and violence" rating logo on the cover.

Overall

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is one of the most important films of Lon Chaney’s career and an incredible look at the scale of cinema during the silent era in Hollywood. Umbrella’s transfer is good but having few extras and not having a Blu-ray release are missed opportunities. As for an affordable way to see the restored film it comes recommended.

The Film: A Video: B Audio: B Extras: C- Overall: B-

 


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