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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Blu-ray Review

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) movie poster The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Theatrical Release: September 6, 1923 / Running Time: 109 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Wallace Worsley / Writers: Victor Hugo (novel), Perley Poore Sheehan (adaptation), Edward T. Lowe Jr. (scenario)

Cast: Lon Chaney (Quasimodo), Patsy Ruth Miller (Esmeralda), Norman Kerry (Phoebus de Chateaupers), Kate Lester (Madame de Gondelaurier), Winifred Bryson (Fleur de Lys), Nigel de Brulier (Don Claudio), Brandon Hurst (Jehan), Ernest Torrence (Clopin), Tully Marshall (King Louis XI), Harry Van Meter (Monsieur Neufchatel), Raymond Hatton (Gringoire), Nick de Ruiz (Mons. Le Torteru), Eulalie Jensen (Marie), Roy Laidlaw (Charmolu), Ray Myers (Charmolu's Assistant), William Parke (Josephus), Gladys Brockwell (Sister Gudule), John Cossar (Judge of the Court), Edwin Wallock (King's Chamberlain)

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The two best-known filmings of The Hunchback of Notre Dame are Disney's 1996 animated musical and the 1939 version starring Charles Laughton and a teenaged Maureen O'Hara.
A close third would be 1923's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a silent film starring future Phantom of the Opera Lon Chaney.

Today, this adaptation is one of the better-known silents, though it understandably belongs to film's most obscure age. It holds up as an ambitious production, one going to lengths many modern filmmakers would never consider. IMDb, where it is the third most-rated release of 1923, lists a 133-minute runtime. That refers to the film's original roadshow cut, now believed lost. Struck from a surviving general release print (which shortened the film from 12 reels to ten), Hunchback runs 109 minutes with newish credits on this premiere Blu-ray presentation from Flicker Alley. Even falling only 11 minutes short of two hours was pretty unusual back then, when the average runtime was around 65-70 minutes. By the early 1920s, even D.W. Griffiths, who had approached or exceeded three hours on his still-famous epic dramas The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, was reliably staying under two hours.

To give you a sense of how impressive Hunchback's production values hold up, I've got to embarrassingly confess that I suspected it was partly filmed at the real Notre Dame Cathedral, as if, pre-World War II, those in charge of that nearly thousand year old landmark would have no qualms about Lon Chaney or doubles climbing all over its flying buttresses and sculptures. That speaks less to my gullibility than to the filmmakers' achievements, which included constructing a convincing Parisian church on a huge backlot at Universal City.

Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) of 1923's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" isn't happy to be crowned King of Fools on Topsy-Turvy Day. Phoebus de Chateaupers is poetically introduced by this intertitle.

I don't think I'm the only one writing about film for a living these days who kind of marginalizes everything before the 1930s. It feels like the medium didn't really find its footing until that decade, the first full one to enjoy the use of synchronized sound. Hunchback reminds us that there was more to silent film than airy romantic comedies, elephant electrocution, and Fred Ott's sneeze.

Hunchback had a $1.25 million budget, which seems astronomical even if inflation "only" adjusts it to around $17 million today, which is still less than Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave's modest $20 M production costs. Still, bonus features on this release establish Hunchback as the most expensive movie made at the time.

You may have noticed that I'm avoiding the usual function of this part of the review of describing the plot. I'm not assuming you are familiar with Hugo's book (which I've not read) or at least the gist of it. The fact is, for all of the fascination Hunchback offers in terms of film history, it's not that easy to appreciate as a piece of entertainment. That's not so unusual. Though highly celebrated, Griffith's Birth of a Nation is downright insufferable today and not only because it's racist and portrays the Ku Klux Klan heroically. The silent films that have aged best are the ones you don't need intertitles to follow. The visual-driven comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd may not split your sides, but they are usually able to hold your attention and tickle your soul.

King of beggars Clopin (Ernest Torrence) is in cahoots with the film's villain, Jehan (Brandon Hurst). Dancing Gypsy Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) shows compassion for Quasimodo.

Hunchback does neither of those things. I gather that it's a pretty faithful adaptation of Hugo's text. That book was originally titled Notre-Dame de Paris (that's Notre Dame of Paris, for you non-French speakers) before taking on its more familiar English appellation. That may explain why the Hunchback is simply one part of this film, and not a huge one in terms of screen time or action.

This takes its time to tell us about young Gypsy woman Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), her surrogate father "king of beggars" Clopin (Ernest Torrence), and the now-insane mother from whom she was taken as a child. Since it didn't want to make its villain a man of the cloth, the film turns Don Claudio's brother Jehan (Brandon Hurst) into the primary antagonist. It is he who longs for Esmeralda.
The brothers dress accordingly to their souls; the saintly Don Claudio (Nigel deBrulier) wears white while Jehan dresses in black. There's also Phoebus (Norman Kerry) who emerges as love interest to Esmeralda despite being engaged to a more affluent lady (Kate Lester).

As a Hugo tale, this one is big on class differences, uprising, and coincidence. The masses are prepared to hang Gringoire (Raymond Hatton), a singer of sweet songs, simply because he's an aristocrat in their presence. But it's really that hunchback, Quasimodo, who grabs our attention. The strangely hairy and monstrous-looking yet kind-hearted figure which Chaney plays with the assistance of make-up (that he himself devised and applied) and posture that remains eye-grabbing. It's a command performance in a film that's otherwise slow and tiresome, save for its no-expense-spared design.

Perhaps it's only me, but Hunchback moved me less for its depictions of 15th century working class Parisians than for its ability to assemble 2,000 extras for a crowd scene and its imperceptible use of hanging miniatures to expand the one-story cathedral set.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) Blu-ray Disc cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray Disc Details

1.33:1 Original Aspect Ratio
Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 (Music)
Subtitles: None
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: March 18, 2014
Suggested Retail Price: $41.98
Single-sided, single-layered disc (BD-25)
Thick Clear Keepcase
Also available as Ultimate Edition DVD ($19.98 SRP; October 9, 2007)
and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Hunchback does not get the jaw-dropping restoration Criterion might have given it, but it looks pretty presentable given its nonagenarian status. Appearing in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a mix of yellow, copper, lavender, and blue tints (blue, for instance, is used on outdoor night scenes), the film is missing some frames here and there and generally jumpy. Not easily recognized as high definition video, it's got a lot of wear and tear it can't hide. On brief occasion, lines running down the screen make it look like it's raining or snowing, even on indoor scenes where you know it can't be.

The frame rate seems a little iffy, but the age of the film excuses the shortcomings, as does the fact that it derives from a 1926 16mm print, the best known surviving source. Flicker Alley is candid, describing the picture quality on the back of the case and describing the wear as being "diminished with a moderate amount of digital restoration." So while you can wish the studio did more, you can't fault them for being upfront. Given their presumably modest sales numbers and profit margins, it's impressive they've done as much as they have for a film that's been in the public domain for over sixty years. I have no doubt this transfer represents the movie's best to date.

The film is treated to a new symphonic score arranged by Donald Hunsberger and recorded in the Czech Republic by a full orchestra conducted by Robert Israel. This soundtrack is only presented in Dolby 2.0 stereo instead of lossless DTS-HD master audio. Nonetheless, it's clean and suitable accompaniment for the film.

Lon Chaney shows an unidentified man the Notre Dame set and how he'll climb it in this vintage newsreel clip. Blink and you'll miss Lon Chaney's appearance as a hunchback in the bonus 1915 short "Alas and Alack."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Though it may not have the library or rabid fan base of Criterion, Flicker Alley shares with that boutique label a respect for classic cinema and an appreciation for bonus features. It loads up this pricey disc with substantial extras.

First, from the Audio Options menu, we find an audio commentary by Lon Chaney scholar Michael F. Blake. He opens with Variety's pan of the film erroneously forecasting box office failure, before unleashing a wealth of knowledge about the production and personnel. Applying critical and academic eyes to the film, Blake makes this the rare solo track that's easy to endure. He shares his experiences of researching the film over the years, from discovering that Chaney, not producer Irving Thalberg as long assumed,
was the driving force behind it to speaking with leading lady Patsy Ruth Miller. Blake dispenses screen-specific information without lull, and he's just as interesting rattling off different Hunchback adaptations as he is discussing the stunts and effects employed. The movie almost gets better with this soundtrack activated instead of the default score.

Rare behind-the-scenes footage (1:40, SD) apparently from a newsreel shows Lon Chaney out of makeup on the Hunchback set, showing an unknown man how he'll climb that cathedral.

The case's mention of an additional Chaney film is slightly misleading. From 1915, Alas and Alack (SD) is a short, running 13 minutes and 18 seconds. Chaney appears for just 22 of those seconds from a distance and projected into a shell, playing "Hunchback Fate", a hunchback who wrestles a fisherman in this strange, effects-heavy fairy tale involving a seaside mother and daughter. Though it ends abruptly (missing its final shots), it's a pretty nifty find, nonetheless, and bears obvious relevance to the feature presentation.

The Dynamic HD Photo Gallery gives us our clearest look at Lon Chaney as the Hunchback Quasimodo. Hunchback's Souvenir Program dispenses fun facts and figures from the ambitious production.

A Dynamic HD Photo Gallery (14:02) presents more than 100 clean, glorious images, from behind-the-scenes looks at sets and a deleted sequence to character shots and vintage critic-quoting marketing. It's really good material.

In a similar vein is a Digital Reproduction of Souvenir Program (15:28, HD), which attaches staticky record score to a thorough inspection of this book that sold
for a quarter at Roadshow exhibitions of the film. The program includes notes from producer Carl Laemmle, fun production facts, actor bios, and assorted pictures.

The top menu places score over a static shot of Quasimodo inside a bell graphic. Authored for Regions A, B and C, the Blu-ray does not let you set bookmarks, but does resume unfinished playback like a DVD after powering down. Pop Up menus are not utilized.

The clear Criterion-style keepcase use its reverse side to reprint the program's cast list and note from Laemmle. As in a Criterion release, there's even a booklet. This nicely-illustrated piece includes disc credits, but devotes most of its 12 pages to an essay by Michael F. Blake, which goes into greater detail into some of the more interesting points raised in his commentary, touching on Chaney's previous failed attempts to make the film and his reluctance to come to terms with Universal.

Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) brings a chained-up Quasimodo (Lon Chaney Sr.) some water in 1923's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Flicker Alley brings 1923's Hunchback of Notre Dame to Blu-ray with much love, passion, and lots of valuable bonus features. It's a platter I'd like to recommend wholeheartedly, but have to confess that the movie interested me far more as a showcase for early Hollywood epic ambition than for its retelling of Victor Hugo's story. If you can accept that and adjust your expectations accordingly, you should find much to admire about this strong release.

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Related Reviews:
Adapted from Victor Hugo: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) • Les Misιrables (1998) • Wishbone • Mad Monster Party
1920s Silent Films: The Big Parade • Safety Last! • Wings • Vintage Mickey • Disney Rarities
Flicker Alley: Nanook of the North • Cinerama Holiday • South Seas Adventure • The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection
Classics on Blu-ray: It's a Wonderful Life • Sunset Boulevard • The Apartment
New: Samson and Delilah • Fantastic Mr. Fox • The Wolf of Wall Street

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Reviewed March 23, 2014.



Text copyright 2014 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1923 Universal Pictures and 2014 Flicker Alley and The Blackhawk Films Collection.
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