1939, which is generally considered one of the greatest years for Hollywood films, produced such classics as “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It also gave us a wonderful film called “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara and Cedric Hardwicke. Laughton plays the title character and O’Hara plays the lovely gypsy woman Esmeralda, who seeks sanctuary in the church of Notre Dame after being falsely accused of a murder.
Beyond the tragic tale of the hideous Quasimodo falling in love with the gorgeous Esmeralda, the film also features a complicated political plot involving King Louis XI, his Chief Justice, the beggar’s union and the village craftsmen. The introduction in the 15th century of the printing press creates a political cauldron and freedom of speech which King Louis (Henry Davenport) welcomes, but Chief Justice Frollo (Hardwicke) acts to destroy the village printing press and limit descent. Frollo falls for Esmeralda, kills a soldier intent on wooing her, and convicts her for the crime. At the gallows, Quasimodo swoops in on a rope to save her and take her to the sanctuary of the Notre Dame cathedral.
Charles Laughton impresses in a very physical role as Quasimodo. While wearing the elaborate and very chilling hunchback costume and makeup, Laughton deftly scoots between the beams of the belfry, performing seemingly dangerous stunts. Later, while defending the church from the beggar’s union, he drops massive beams on the mob from above and even turns over a tub full of molten metal on them. I found it amazing that a 40 year-old out of shape actor with a cumbersome costume and makeup could be so physically active.
Of course, the story comes from Victor Hugo’s novel, but I wonder why the Hollywood code did not object to Quasimodo’s killing spree at the end of the film. The mob of beggars misguided attempt to storm Notre Dame results in dozens of dead, all at the hands of Quasimodo. In addition, the beggars only wanted to save Esmeralda, but they cause major damage to the Notre Dame cathedral. Justice comes for Esmeralda and Frodo, but the priests seem too willing to overlook the damage. Quasimodo emerges as the hero, but I can’t help wondering how Esmeralda could make the village so hysterical.