In 1939 the most highly regarded actor in the world was a round little English man renown for his gift of eloquence. The Hunchback of Notre Dame demonstrates just how good Charles Laughton could be, even without his distinctive use of words to aid him.
Some dismissed Hunchback as a mere monster movie when it first appeared in theaters, but others were far more perceptive in praising the many qualities of this exceptional film. Besides being based on a classic Victor Hugo novel the film was crafted by some of the most respected talents Hollywood has ever seen. In addition to Laughton, the cast includes a radiant Maureen O’Hara in what was only her second starring role.
Laughton had worked with O’Hara in her first film where she was the star, Jamaica Inn, and was so impressed with the teenager’s ability to evoke gentile innocence with such true conviction that Laughton insisted the Irish actress be cast as his Esmeralda. A very wise move, since it is through Esmeralda’s eyes that the audience comes to understand and sympathize with the hunchback, Quasimodo. Before the gypsy girl appears, the bell ringer is a grotesque figure known to do the biding of Frolo, the man who discovered him as a foundling. But after he meets the great beauty, who in an act of heart wrenching kindness brings him water despite personal threat from the superstitious public and bigoted officials, Quasimodo becomes a force to be dealt with. He becomes a protector and a warrior, all for the friendship of a fair maiden.
Unfortunately, that same maiden has stirred the lust and longing in Frolo, a member of the high court played to great effectiveness by Sir Cedric Hardwicke. Frolo is a cold and superior man who has until now prided himself on being able to reject the baser instincts of nature. However, it is this fateful meeting with the lovely enchantress that seals both their fates as her honest refusal torments him to evil extremes. Hardwicke, with his minimal inflections and measured delivery of speech is extremely creepy and foreboding as he projects the attitude of a monster far more repellant than any hunchback. The cast is further enhanced by the talents of the ever likable Harry Davenport as Louis XI, an unrecognizable young Edmond O’Brien as the idealistic sweetheart, and the versatile Thomas Mitchell as Clopin, the amoral, but just King of the beggars.
And of course, there is the character of the city itself. Director William Dieterle, perhaps better known for his stunningly colorful, Duel in the Sun works in Black and White here to create a visceral depiction of medieval Parisian squalor. Although the film was shot entirely on the back lots of Los Angeles, Dieterle uses the alternating layers of shadow and light to elicit a feeling of desperate grime and harsh living conditions, especially for the marginalized of society living amongst the darker hues. No other studio-generated film has ever captured the feel of a time and a place so convincingly.
And Dieterle’s work with the actors is just as nuanced and satisfying as each character’s relationship is allowed to blossom, and each actor is given their moment to shine without overshadowing the whole. The exception, of course, is Laughton. With such a magnetic performance it’s shocking he was not nominated for an Academy Award. Laughton had received an Oscar five years earlier for The Private Life of Henry VIII, and Hunchback was the same year of Gone with the Wind, so perhaps many had hoped to pave the way for Gable (who did not win). Or perhaps the Academy simply undervalued the strength of his performance due to the character’s lack of dialogue. No matter the reason the portrayal remains for generations to view, and undoubtedly many will make a choice of their own for best performance by an actor of 1939.