The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

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Critic Consensus: A heart-rending take on the classic book, with a legendary performance by Lon Chaney.

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Movie Info

This second film version of the Victor Hugo novel Notre Dame de Paris (the first was a Theda Bara vehicle, The Dancer of Paris) was a super-duper-spectacular as only Hollywood of the 1920s could make them, but it is never so large that it dwarfs the contribution of its star, Lon Chaney. As the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, Chaney adorned himself with a special device that made his cheeks jut out grotesquely; a contact lens that blanked out one of his eyes; and, most painfully, a huge rubber hump covered with coarse animal fur and weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds. While Quasimodo is but one of many interconnecting characters in the original Hugo novel, he dominates the narrative of this expensive Universal production. Set in the walled city of Paris in the 16th century, the story is set in motion when the evil Jehan (Brandon Hurst), brother of saintly Notre Dame archdeacon Dom Claude (Nigel De Brulier), orders the dog-like Quasimodo to attempt to kidnap gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller). Quasimodo is captured and flogged for his crime, whereupon Esmeralda shows him kindness by offering him water. He reciprocates when Esmeralda, framed on a murder charge by the obsessed Jehan (if he can't have her, no one can), is sentenced to be hanged. Quasimodo grabs a rope and swings down from the towers of Notre Dame, rescues Esmeralda from the gallows, and carries her into the church, shouting "Sanctuary! Sanctuary!" Through a series of convoluted plot twists, Clopin (Ernest Torrence), the king of beggars, leads an army of the Parisian poor to storm the gates of the cathedral and reclaim Esmeralda. Quasimodo defends both the girl and his church by tossing heavy objects and pouring molten lead upon the invaders. This climactic scene was filmed at night, requiring the services of literally every arc light in Hollywood. The Notre Dame set (which wasn't quite as large in real life as it seems on screen) remained standing on the Universal back lot for years after this film was completed, doing background service in the 1925 Lon Chaney starrer The Phantom of the Opera. With Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lon Chaney rose from mere leading player to major star, which led him to even greater success at MGM, where his reputation as "the man of a thousand faces" really got a workout. The story would be remade by in 1939 with Charles Laughton, in 1955 with Anthony Quinn, in 1982 with Anthony Hopkins, and again in 1996 as a sanitized Disney animated musical.

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Critic Reviews for The Hunchback of Notre Dame

All Critics (23) | Top Critics (2)

Worth seeing mainly for Chaney's remarkable performance; even bowed and constricted by the heavy weights he used to help simulate Quasimodo's crippled gait, his body remains extraordinarily expressive.

Jun 24, 2006 | Full Review…
Time Out
Top Critic

The self-torture demanded by Chaney's makeup is impressive, as are the scales of the sets and the crowd scenes, but nothing comes to life under the flat direction of Wallace Worsley.

Mar 28, 2002 | Full Review…

Although it is an elaborate-studied piece of work, over which much time and many dollars have been spent, it makes no tumultuous call upon our enthusiasm.

Nov 20, 2018 | Full Review…

Despite being 95 years old, it remains a classic. It also marks a true beginning of Universal Monster Films that would come to define horror for decades.

Oct 12, 2018 | Rating: 3.5/4 | Full Review…

The fourth and most spectacular silent version of Victor Hugo's classic story Notre-Dame de Paris made Lon Chaney a major star.

Oct 17, 2016 | Rating: 3/5 | Full Review…

It's for [Chaney's] inimitable genius alone that this sprawling saga is now most fondly remembered.

Oct 17, 2016 | Rating: 4/5 | Full Review…

Audience Reviews for The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo takes it upon himself to protect the beautiful and kindhearted gypsy girl Esmeralda when she is falsely accused of murder. The silent version with Lon Chaney is understandably overshadowed by the magnificent talkie with Charles Laughton, but this one is fast-paced and spectacular by silent film standards, packing quite a bit of Victor Hugo's novel into about two hours.

Greg S
Greg S

Super Reviewer

½

Worth seeing for Lon Chaney's performance and the grand 15th century Paris settings.

Christopher Heim
Christopher Heim

Super Reviewer

To be honest I was expecting to like this a lot more than I did. I'm especially disappointed that adaptation decay existed even in the very early pictures, and I wasn't really able to get over how sanitised elements of it were from the novel.

Kylie B
Kylie B

Super Reviewer

½

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is possibly the earliest film adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel and features some of the most iconic film visuals of the 20th century. Lon Chaney is a legend of the silver screen, most famous for his amazing make-up techniques and his willingness to throw himself into his part (perhaps he was cinema's first "method actor"?). However, while Chaney seems only capable of two facial expressions, he brings a wide array of subtle ticks (constantly flicking his tongue out of his mouth, for instance) and broad physical movements to the role. The film itself suffers from a lack of editing, it takes alot of time for a little to happen. Watching a great silent film can be like watching a painting come to life, like watching the angels dance in the Sistine chapel, but watching a bad one can be like watching the paint dry. This film falls somewhere in the middle, saved mainly by the last act, where the true sadness of Quasimodo's life and character is seen. I'm looking forward to seeing Charles Laughton's performance of the title role.

Devon Bott
Devon Bott

Super Reviewer

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