One of the most recognizable names of silent cinema, Lon Chaney is still renowned today for his mastery of playing tortured (and somewhat grotesque) characters as well as his mastery of makeup in portraying them. This special ability earned him the nickname “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, one which started as a character actor following his breakthrough performance in the now lost The Miracle Man (1919). One of his most recognizable “faces” appears in Universal’s “Super Jewel” adaptation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Released several times over the years on DVD and Blu-ray (the most recent release coming from Flicker Alley), Kino has licensed the movie for it’s latest Blu-ray release.
The Production: 4/5
In 1482 Paris, the half-blind and deaf hunchback Quasimodo (Lon Chaney) is both mocked and vilified for his deformities as well as abused by his master Jehan (Brandon Hurst). However, his life starts to change when he’s shown compassion – both by Notre Dame’s saintly archdeacon Dom Claude (Nigel de Brulier) and by gypsy dancing girl Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller) – and when Esmerelda falls into a star-crossed love with Captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry). When Jehan and Clopin (Ernest Torrance) – Esmerelda’s adoptive father – learns of marriage plans between Captain Phoebus and Esmerelda, they scheme to separate them, but Quasimodo will selflessly come to Esmerelda’s rescue and show the conspirators (and all of Paris) that love eternal will not be denied…
Only the second American film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s immortal and oft-adapted novel – the first, The Darling of Paris from 1917 is unfortunately a lost film – The Hunchback of Notre Dame lives up to its super jewel designation bestowed by Universal. Sparing no expense in the million dollar production helmed by Wallace Worsley, the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral and adjoining courtyard (recreated by production designers Elmer Shelley and Sidney Ullman) is one of the most impressive recreations done in Silent Era Hollywood in the 1920’s, rivaled only by Cecil B. DeMille’s recreation of Ancient Egypt on the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes of Santa Barbara County for his epic The Ten Commandments (1923). However, the impressive set design takes a back seat to the painstaking detail Lon Chaney brought to his Quasimodo; utilizing the description in Hugo’s novel, Chaney created an unforgettable appearance – complete with a plaster hump weighing at least 10 pounds – that helped to further elevate his status to a full fledged star while also giving one of his best performances on film. That being said, there is a notable deviation from the novel here that may give purists of the work some fits about: the splitting of Claude Frollo into two separate characters in order to appease the moral majority of the day. That aside, The Hunchback of the Notre Dame is still one of the most impressive silent films to come out of Hollywood in the 1920’s and helped to set the template for future success for Universal Studios.
While Chaney is the main draw here, the supporting players are also worthy of praise as well. Patsy Ruth Miller is a very luminous Esmerelda, who can hold her own against later portrayals of the character, most notably by Maureen O’Hara in William Dieterle’s 1939 adaptation; she would later become a novelist and largely leave Hollywood behind – aside from a few later film appearances – in the early 1930’s. Norman Kerry, who would later appear alongside Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), makes for a dashing Captain Phoebus; his Hollywood career would become a casualty of the coming of sound as his career declined following the end of the decade. With Claude Frollo split into two here, Nigel De Brulier plays the saintly Don Claudio while Brandon Hurst is his evil brother Jehan; perennial Silent Era heavy Ernest Torrence is appropriately grizzled as the king of the beggars, Clopin. Rounding out the cast here are Tully Marshall as King Louis XI, Winifred Bryson as Phoebus’ betrothed Fleur de Lys, Raymond Hatton as the poet Gringoire, and uncredited Charles Farrell and Gilbert Roland as extras.
3D Rating: NA
The restored 110 minute version of the movie is presented in its original 1:33:1 aspect ratio, taken from a new 4K restoration done by Universal Pictures from a 16mm print for this release. Film grain, fine details, gray scale and color tinted scenes are all faithfully represented with noticeable yet mostly non-distracting cases of scratches, dirt, and tears present here. The restoration team at Universal should be highly commended for their work here, as this film is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video (Flicker Alley’s previous Blu-ray release is the lone exception for that distinction), and very easily surpassing all previous DVD releases of the movie.
The film is accompanied by a music score by Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum & Laura Karpman, which is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. The music is faithfully represented with no cases of distortion, crackling or hissing present.
Special Features: 3/5
Commentary by film historian Farran Smith Nehme – Recorded for this release, Nehme talks about the production history of the film as well as the differences between the film and the Victor Hugo novel.
“Life in Hollywood” newsreel (8:49) – This 1922 silent newsreel takes us on a behind-the-scenes look at the Universal studios, including a look on the set of this movie.
Home movie footage of Lon Chaney (13:11)
Still Galleries – Three galleries of stills and photos, provided by film historian Michael F. Blake and the Alfred Grasso Family Collection, are presented here: the original program book (21 stills at 3:40), production stills (42 stills at 3:46) and publicity materials and correspondence (25 stills at 4:19)
Booklet essay by film historian Michael F. Blake
Noticeably missing here from both the previous Flicker Alley Blu-ray and Image DVD are a commentary by Michael F. Blake, the 1915 short film Alas and Alack, behind-the-scenes footage of Lon Chaney and a set of stereoscopic 3-D production stills (with accompanying 3-D glasses of course).
A moneymaker during its initial release, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a quintessential silent film as well as an essential film in the canon of Lon Chaney. Kino has arguably delivered the best home video presentation of the film along with a solid slate of special features as well. Very highly recommended and absolutely worth getting if you missed out on the Flicker Alley Blu-ray or looking to upgrade the Image DVD.
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