Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Kate Lester, Winifred Bryson, Nigel De Brulier, Brandon Hurst, Ernest Torrence, Tully Marshall, Harry von Meter, Raymond Hatton, Nick De Ruiz, Eulalie Jensen, Roy Laidlaw, Ray Myers
Written by: Perley Poore Sheehan, Edward T. Lowe Jr., based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Directed by: Wallace Worsley
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 110
Date: 09/01/1923

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The master of disguise Lon Chaney went from character actor to full-fledged star with this prestige project from Universal Studios. As Quasimodo, his incredible makeup included jagged teeth, a creepy, bulging eye, and even a shirtless scene where his animal-like chest and hunched back are plain as day. As with many of his other films, he plays a lovestruck outcast whose appearance is his undoing. His emotional performance, on top of his makeup skill, is astounding.

But the focus of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is really Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller). She's the adopted daughter of Clopin, the king of the beggars. Quasimodo's master orders him to kidnap her. He's caught and whipped, but she takes pity on him. Meanwhile, a captain of the king's royal guard, Phoebus (Norman Kerry) falls for her and plans to marry her, which causes more unrest. Eventually, Esmerelda is accused of murder, and Qausimodo saves the day.

There's a lot of plot in this movie, and even though Chaney is the main reason to see it, he only occupies a percentage of the entire scope. Director Wallace Worsley, who had worked with Chaney on the amazing The Penalty, was probably not the best man for it, but he does a serviceable job, and comes up with many powerful scenes. The overall spectacle of the production is also quite dazzling.

The movie is in the public domain, but Flicker Alley has given us a wonderful new 2014 Blu-ray edition. It's not flawless; its source is apparently the best possible: a 16mm print which was struck from the original camera negative. There's definitely a lack of sharpness, but the result is still surprisingly rich. Chaney scholar Michael F. Blake provides an amazingly informative commentary track. Other extras include footage of Chaney on the set out of makeup, a 1915 film, Alas and Alack, in which Chaney also plays a hunchback, stills, and a reproduction of the original souvenir program.

In 2021, Kino Lorber released a new Blu-ray from a new 4K restoration, and the result is a vast improvement over the 2014 release. The score by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum & Laura Karpman is rich and exquisite, and there's a commentary track by film critic Farran Smith Nehme. Chaney scholar Michael F. Blake, who provided the commentary on the 2014 disc (which is not included here) provides a liner notes essay. This one includes production stills, but none of the extras from the earlier release. New extras include footage of Chaney at home, a "Life in Hollywood" newsreel, and a slideshow of production correspondence. Highly recommended.

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