Friday, October 31, 2014

31 Days of Halloween - Day 31 - Movie 1

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) is Hollywood's second spectacle based on Victor Hugo's novel.  The 1923 version, starring Lon Chaney, was a hard act to follow. In terms of spectacle, this version matches its predecessor. The sets are glorious, the crowd scenes populous, the cinematography beautiful. This time Charles Laughton plays the titular character, Quasimodo under Perc Westmore's impressive make-up. Laughton's Quasimodo is less animated and acrobatic than Chaney's, but is able to get across a great deal of pathos in his reserved performance. Cedric Hardwicke makes for a nasty Frollo, and Maureen O'Hara, while not quite convincing as a Gypsy girl, makes for a beautiful Esmeralda.

It's an excellent movie, but not quite at the level of the 1923 version. The script hits all of its notes really broadly, and practically underlines key bits of exposition and dialogue to make sure the audience doesn't miss them. There's a much more optimistic feel all the way throughout that doesn't really match the situation unfolding on screen, even ending with a happy, if bittersweet ending, not true to the source material. It's somewhat like the difference between the 1943 Phantom of the Opera and the 1925 original. The silent versions were energetic, dark and mysterious. The romance was tinged with doom. The sound versions were too busy trying to cement themselves as audience pleasing costume melodramas, and completely blunted their dark edges. This remake of the Hunchback excels where the remake of Phantom didn't. Even if it were only for Laughton's performance, this movie would be well worth seeing.

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