A century later, Chaney’s ‘Hunchback’ still amazes
If you were a moviegoer 100 years ago in 1923, you would have been treated to laughs courtesy of comedy greats Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. You might have held your breath as Harold Lloyd hung dangerously from a clock high above a city street in Safety Last!
You would have been awed by the impressive parting of the Red Sea in Cecil B. DeMille’s big-screen spectacle The Ten Commandments, the biggest hit of 1923.
If you were looking to be frightened, your entertainment choices dwindled dramatically. The number of horror films released in 1923 could nearly be counted on one hand. But among the very few was something very special: Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
We can pause to acknowledge that not everyone considers Hunchback a horror film. If you don’t either, you’re in good company since the esteemed Christopher Lee didn’t think it was a horror film either. Nor did author Carlos Clarens who called the film a “historical spectacle rather than a horror film” in his Illustrated History of the Horror Film. More recently, an article in Paste magazine said it wasn’t hard to make the case that it was “more adventure or romantic drama than it is a horror film, save for one key characteristic: The iconic, unavoidably grotesque appearance of its title character.” (I would add it’s a beauty and the beast story of the most tragic kind.)
But there is horror in Hunchback that is found in its deep cruelty, brutality and malice that caused Variety to call the film a “two-hour nightmare” upon its release.
Chaney had long wanted to make a film of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel about the mistreated Quasimodo, a deaf, half-blind and deformed man who is the bell ringer at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1482. As men of power, greed and lust use and abuse him, he falls in love with and protects lovely young Gypsy dancer Esmeralda. The story’s moral was to teach us not to judge people by how they look.
There were at least three film versions already made when Chaney started to explore his options. Alice Guy-Blanche and Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset co-directed a 10-minute French short called Esmeralda in 1905; a British short of the same name was released in 1922. Both, as expected from the title, focused on Esmeralda. A 26-minute version of the novel under the full title of Hunchback of Notre Dame was released in 1911.
In 1921, Chaney acquired the film rights and was willing to go the extra mile to get it done – even if it meant making it overseas. He had an early deal with the German studio, Chelsea Pictures Company which fell through. But the success of the Chaney films The Miracle Man (1919) and The Penalty (1920) helped Irving Thalberg convince Universal co-founder Carl Laemmle to make Hunchback, as the studio announced it would in August of 1922.
It wouldn’t be just any film either – it would be a movie of a scale so grand it had never been attempted by Universal before. It took six months to build a 19-acre set with a re-creation the Notre Dame Cathedral including its “Gallery of Kings” – the statues of each king of France that line the western façade – along with surrounding streets. So many extras were used for the film – hundreds were needed for the “Court of Miracles” scene alone – that 3,000 costumes had to be made.
Hunchback was filmed from Dec. 16, 1922 to June 8, 1923 and released on Sept. 6, 1923. The director was Wallace Worsley, an unusual choice at first glance, but he had worked with Chaney to great success on four other films.
At a final budget of about $1,250,000, it was the most expensive film Chaney ever made but it easily made back its budget by pulling in $3.5 million – a fortune in 1923. That box office figure is greater than even Chaney’s most famous film, The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
By this time, Chaney had earned the title of “The Man of a Thousand Faces” for his innovative makeup and incredible physical ability to contort his body in ways we continue to marvel at today.
After playing cripples – or pretend cripples – in such films as The Miracle Man, The Penalty, The Shock and Flesh and Blood, Chaney proclaimed that Hunchback would be his final “cripple” role. (Of course, that didn’t last long. In 1927, Chaney was outstanding as a convict pretending to be a cripple in a circus in The Unknown.)
For Hunchback, Chaney kept his makeup faithful to Hugo’s description that Quasimodo’s “whole person was a grimace.”
He had a horseshoe mouth, broken teeth, a little left eye and a right eye that disappeared beneath an enormous wart. His head was huge, topped by bristly hair. His feet were large, hands were monstrous and there was an enormous hump between his shoulders.
“One would have pronounced him a giant who had been broken and badly put together again,” Hugo wrote and that’s what Chaney created.
To play the deformed bell ringer, Chaney wore a breast plate, shoulder pads and a 70-pound rubber hump that was harnessed to him under a skin-colored rubber suit that was affixed with animal hair. It was incredibly heavy, weighing him down so much that he couldn’t stand erect for the three months of filming, causing him pain. The rubber suit made him unbearably hot, drenching him in sweat daily. He couldn’t even close his mouth because of a device used for his face makeup.
It’s difficult not to focus on that intense makeup when watching Hunchback, yet Chaney had the unique ability to make the audience look beyond the grotesque makeup to really see Quasimodo and feel his pain.
The reviewer for Motion Picture World in 1923 certainly understood: “Here then is a picture that will live forever. Chaney’s portrayal of Quasimodo the hunchback is… a marvel of sympathetic acting. Chaney, in some miraculous way, awakens within us a profound feeling of sympathy and admiration for this most unfortunate and physically revolting human being.”
The Nov. 29, 1923 issue of Bioscope echoed a similar sentiment. “His extraordinary make-up as a veritable living gargoyle reaches the limit of grotesquery (and at moments seems to go a shade beyond it) but his sprawling movements and frantic gestures are brilliantly conceived …”
A review from the trade journal Harrison’s Reports seems prophetic reading it today as it states that “Mr. Chaney’s work will live in the memory when all else will have faded away.”
A century later, those words ring true on Chaney’s Quasimodo – a cinematic work of art.
Also from 1923
A search of films made in 1923 revealed only a few possible horror movies. The Wolf Man, starring John Gilbert and Norma Shearer(!), sadly wasn’t what its title suggests. Others are lost like The Unknown Purple with its very intriguing spin on The Invisible Man: A poor inventor uses ultra-violet rays to turn invisible as he seeks revenge against his unfaithful wife and business partner who framed him for a crime. Unfortunately, the rays leave a purple glow causing a problem for this invisible man. I truly wish I could see this film.
The year also brought the third silent film version of The Monkey’s Paw, an adaptation of the 1902 short story by W.W. Jacobs about a monkey’s paw that grants its holder three wishes with terrifying results. If you can get to Britain, you can see an incomplete version of the film.
You can find some episodes of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu to watch online. Based on the first of the Fu-Manchu novels that Sax Rohmer wrote in 1913, this 1923 film serial had 15 self-contained short episodes that each came with a gimmick such as a haunted house, a snake-head cane with a live killer snake hidden inside, a cat with poisoned claws and a torture cage with rats. Now that’s dark.
One exciting discovery was the German film Schatten – Eine nächtliche Halluzination (also known as Shadows – a Nocturnal Hallucination and Warning Shadows). A flirtatious young wife, a jealous husband, four suitors and a mysterious shadow puppeteer are the ingredients of this psychological horror story filled with shadows, reflections, lust and jealousy. That alternate title of Warning Shadows is a hint about the movie.
A husband’s dinner party for his wife is interrupted by an uninvited visitor with a bag of magic. As the husband’s jealousy grows with each flirtatious glance between his young wife and guests, the puppeteer plays with shadows releasing desires, possessiveness and even violence.
The full-length film was originally made without intertitles, to allow the strong visuals to tell the story. But without them, it is difficult to fully understand what’s happening. Yet it is mesmerizing to watch as the shadows grow and change, projecting things that are real – and not. In one scene, the husband watches shadows from behind a curtain that seem to show his wife being undressed by a man – but that isn’t the case.
Director Arthur Robison also plays with mirrors and reflections in the way he does with shadows. As the husband waits outside his wife’s bedroom for a young man to leave, we can see the husband’s horror mount as he hides by the door and sees the reflection of the two in a mirror. When the young man backs out of the bedroom, we see him and the husband in both the mirror and hallway. Perhaps there are two sides to every story?
A reason this film is interesting in theory and visuals and that it features the work of some cast and crew of the 1922 German masterpiece Nosferatu: cinematographer Fritz Amo Wagner, designer Albin Grau, who also came up with concept; and actors Alexander Granach as the puppeteer and Gustav von Wangenheim as a young suitor.
I’ll be watching Shadows: A Nocturnal Hallucination/Warning Shadows again.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever and is a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.