The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) starring Charles Laughton, Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell, Maureen O'Hara, Edmond O'Brien directed by William Dieterle Movie Review

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

O'Hara's Notre Dame

Whilst fans of classic movies will know the name Thomas Mitchell for me his name is not held in high enough esteem especially when you consider he appeared in some of the greatest movies in cinema history, 5 of them being from the golden year of 1939. One of those movies is the classic "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" a Hollywood adaptation of Victor Hugo's story and often stated as the best movie version of the classic. Now anyone who has read my reviews will know I am not keen on movies of classic books, I generally struggle with these period dramas but "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is different. Not only does it feel like a Hollywood epic with brilliant performances from not just Mitchell but also Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara but it brings the story to life in an easy to follow but powerful way. Yes it alters things to give it the expected Hollywood ending but it is still a brilliant movie.

When stunning gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara - The Christmas Box) enters Paris she attracts the attention of numerous men including King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) and his Chief Justice Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke). Conflicted by his feelings towards Esmeralda and the law about Gypsies in Paris Frollo tries to have Esmeralda seek sanctuary in the church with deformed bell ringer Quasimodo (Charles Laughton - Spartacus) but on seeing Quasimodo she flees and as he goes after her Qausimodo is arrested for attacking her. Flogged and humiliated in public it is Esmeralda who answers his painful cries for water and in doing so finding a friend. But other men are interested in Esmeralda and when Phoebus (Alan Marshal), one of her admirers is murdered it is Esmeralda who is accused of murder despite being innocent leading to Quasimodo staging a dashing rescue attempt when Esmeralda is sentenced to be hung.

Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

One of my problems has always been that I have heard people go on about how great Victor Hugo's story is that in a strange way it has put me off. The fact that it is also set at the end of the 15th century and set in France has been another issue which has lead me to stay away from watching this classic adaptation because I'm not a fan of period movies especially those based on the classics. But trust me "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is not some stuffy period drama with overly theatrical performances in fact it is one of the most exciting movies I have watched from the 1930s. And more importantly it tells the story of Esmeralda and Quasimodo in an easy to understand but thrilling manner.

Now whilst I am no literary scholar I do know that this adaptation of Hugo's story is not entirely authentic. If you are unaware of the original story I have to tell you that they have turned a tragic ending into a typical Hollywood ending one which would appeal to the mass public rather than literary scholars. And at the same time they have altered the relationship between various characters most significantly that of Esmeralda and poet Gringoire who Esmeralda saves. Now whilst these alterations probably disappoint those who are a fan of the original story they do turn it into a perfect Hollywood movie.

So we have this altered but thrilling adaptation of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" which to put it simply is the tale of a beautiful woman and the various men who fancy her including Gringoire, Frollo and Quasimodo who is entranced by this beauty who showed him pity. It is a genuinely exciting story because we have murder, treachery, daring rescues and an emotional under belly as we have the relationship between Esmeralda and Quasimodo who she feels for but at the same time is unsure of. But we also have an epic movie with amazing sets especially when you discover that Notre Dame was recreated at a cost of quarter of a million dollars. It makes "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" a visually stunning movie with impressive sets and a huge supporting cast.

As for the cast well I have already mentioned Thomas Mitchell who appears as Chopin head of the beggars and alongside him there are solid performances from Cedric Hardwicke, Edmond O'Brien and Harry Davenport. But in truth "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" ends up about two people and the first of which is Charles Laughton as Quasimodo whose characterization of the hunchback is iconic. You have to say that the make-up he wears and the costume is a big part of why his performance is iconic but also the fact that you get the heart of the character, a man with a good soul but controlled and plagued by his deformity leaving him vulnerable to others manipulations. The other performance is from Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda and whilst O'Hara's radiant beauty is perfect for the role she also delivers the heart of the character. In the scenes between Esmeralda and Quasimodo you can feel her conflict, on one hand she knows that he is a gentle spirit but at the same time there is fear.

What this all boils down to is that "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is still despite being over 70 years old an epic movie which does a great job of bringing Hugo's story to life.