Lon Chaney’s 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame is considered one of the two “classic” versions, along with Charles Loughton’s 1939 film. Based on the 1831 Victor Hugo novel, which may or may not be based on the figure of a real hunchback who worked at the famous cathedral, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was a huge smash for Universal. It was actually their most successful silent film. Most people are familiar with the basic story: Quasimodo the hunchback is working at Notre Dame, a gypsy girl named Esmeralda is falsely accused of murder, and he tries to rescue her.
It was directed by Wallace Worsley, who was the director most linked with Lon Chaney, other than Tod Browning (in fact, Browning was originally attached to the film, although Chaney’s first choice was Erich von Stroheim!). Patsy Ruth Miller, who played Esmeralda, is quoted as saying that Chaney really directed the film.
It had amazing production design for the time, with very convincing Gothic sets. The make-up design is amazing. He did the role in a special harness, with a heavy plaster hump as well as facial prosthetics. The scale is also kind of out of this world: Universal was able to round up a bunch of prostitutes who were already doing business on the sets, plus a passel of Pinkerton detectives—quite an interesting mix there—on a dollar a night.
Obviously, Chaney was amazing in the role, and really gets into the soul of Quasimodo. He did all his own makeup, which was a considerable task. Chaney was a fantastic actor, and it really shows here. This version is a faithful and interesting adaptation—so much better than the Disney version, which I’ve always hated. You have Norman Kerry as captain of the guard Phoebus de Chateaupers, who is in love with Esmeralda. Kerry was a Clark Gable-style figure in the 1920s.
It remains one of the crown jewels of American horror of the 1920s. It has really good story with universal appeal—you almost don’t even need the intertitles—with a performance from Chaney that is expressive and moving, making you really feel for his struggle. There is a reason The Hunchback of Notre Dame has been done so many times.
Eureka’s Blu-Ray comes in a limited edition slipcase, and is a 1080p presentation based on Universal’s 4K restoration. A score from Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum and Laura Karpman, new audio commentary with author Stephen Jones and author/film critic Kim Newman, new interviews with Newman on the while range of Hunchback of Notre Dame adaptations and with film historian Jonathan Rigby round off the package, which is accompanied by a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay by journalist Philip Kemp and archival imagery.