With Charles Laughton, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Maureen O'Sullivan, Thomas Mitchell, Edmond O'Brien, Allan Marshal, Harry Davenport
Directed by William Dieterle
Reviewed by JB

      In that amazing year of 1939, in which MGM released GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ, John Ford gave us John Wayne and STAGECOACH, and Frank Capra made a superstar of Jimmy Stewart with MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, RKO released one of its most lavish and expensive productions, an adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME.  The year was so crowded with excellent films and performances, neither THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME nor Charles Laughton were nominated for awards.

     In hindsight, both omissions are mind-boggling.  THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME is every bit as good as any huge and lush MGM production, equal in its own way to GONE WITH THE WIND and OZ.  Laughton is magnificent as Quasimodo, the deformed and deaf bell ringer of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and I cannot imagine a finer performance can be found in any other film of 1939.  Laughton, using limited dialogue and a face half-covered by prosthetics, conveys the entire range of human emotions over the course of the film - joy, confusion, guilt, anger, madness, heartbreak - you name an emotion, Laughton's got it covered.  The entire section where Quasimodo is taken to the public square, given fifty lashes, kept on public display for mock and ridicule and finally given a drink of water from Esmeralda the Gypsy should be required viewing for anybody interested in becoming an actor.  Sure, Clark Gable (GONE WITH THE WIND), Robert Donat (GOODBYE MR. CHIPS), Jimmy Stewart (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON) and Laurence Olivier (WUTHERING HEIGHTS) gave excellent performances, but nominating Mickey Rooney for BABES IN ARMS while ignoring Laughton as Quasimodo?  I want a recount!

     We can thank Laughton for the film career of the beautiful Maureen O'Hara.  She was handpicked by Laughton to play the part of Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer who captures the hearts of three men, including Quasimodo and his caretaker Frollo, played by Sir Cedric Hardwicke.  O'Hara is absolutely stunning and was a perfect choice for the role, projecting a mix of warmth, mystery, sexiness and virginal innocence with an ease that belied her age (she was 19 at the time).  In fact, the only performance I have any problem with in the film is Edmund O'Brien, an actor I normally love.  Some consider this film to be talky, while I say it is literate.  There are flowery speeches throughout and actors such as Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell and Harry Davenport handle it all with aplomb.  But it all sounds so silly and foppish coming out of the mouth of the young O'Brien.  It doesn't harm the film, but I'm so glad O'Brien matured and gave us many a great performance later in his career. 

     THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has been filmed many times, including the silent classic starring Lon Chaney, a 1956 version starring Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida, a 1982 television film starring Anthony Hopkins and Leslie-Anne Down, a 1997 film starring Mandy Patinkin and Salma Hayek, and even a popular animated Disney feature released in 1996.  But the RKO version will probably remain the most admired adaptation for many years to come.  Until, of course, they make a dark, action-packed, CGI anime hip-hop version set in an apocalyptic future. 5 - JB

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Copyright © 2008 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee