The Hunchback of Notre Dame SBIFF 2020

The Hunchback of Notre Dame Reviewed by Zane Stull

This year’s SBIFF Super Silent Sunday film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, screened on the second Friday night at the Arlington Theater. As always (I have seen every SBIFF Super Silent film shown so far), it was a thrill to be in the majestic Arlington Theater (or movie palace) and see the organ slowly rise from the pit below the stage. There is something magical about an entire cinematic world’s sound being produced live by one person. Some of my favorite films are silent films, like those of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks. And SBIFF has selected some great films over the years. However, for me, this year’s selection did not rise to the level of those films.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was made in 1923 and directed by Wallace Worsley. It stars Lon Chaney as the hunchback, Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda, and Norman Kerry as Phoebus. It was adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel, which has been the basis of many films since this 1923 version. I have not read the novel; my first knowledge of the story came from the Disney animated version and its companion picture book. I cannot speak to its faithfulness in following the novel, but I did not feel that it was well plotted or directed. Wallace Worsley directed Lon Chaney on several other films in the silent era. He stopped directing when the talkie era began. Perhaps his attitude was expressed in his last credited film, The Power of Silence.

As a watched the film, it seemed to embody some of the worst features of the silent cinema era: exaggerated melodramatic confrontations, twists of fate, inexplicable reveals of characters’ true identities, all insufficiently motivated by character or established by plot. Villains are just villainous and spend too much time looking evil and sneering at non-evil characters without much explication as to why they feel that way. Sublimely stupid evil ideas, like Jehan’s plot to have Quasimodo kidnap Esmeralda off the street, are put into motion without any understanding of why the character thinks this is a good idea. Odd unmotivated hatred and prejudice is shown and then much later semi-justified, like Esmeralda’s mother’s hatred of her because she looks like a gypsy. The audience is supposed to accept this as sufficient because we say the gypsy women come into the house and steal the baby (why they would do that is for me lost in the 15th century), but the mother did not see them. Is it her prejudice, a predisposition to assume gypsies steal babies? Perhaps, although the gypsies did not appear to exploit Esmeralda just add her to their community. The film is full of these plot contrivances, which may have been accepted as necessary and appropriate in the 1920’s but do not age well.

Finally the most important defect is the relegation of Quasimodo to the periphery of the plot. Except for his cathedral climbing and bell ringing, he seems to be primarily used as a scapegoat. I think it is legitimate to ask, “Why is this film titled The Hunchback of Notre Dame?” The film ends abruptly before his plot arc is complete. There were some degraded segments of the film so perhaps the surviving film is missing some of its original content. I hope next year’s Super Silent SBIFF films restores the previous excellence of their selections.

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