Welcome to the fist part of my new special column series, IT’S ALIVE! The Universal Monsters Saga, in which I talk about each of the classic Universal Monsters films from the 1920s—1950s. Today we kick things off proper with the very first of these films, Wallace Worsley’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, made in 1923. If you wish to have a look at past articles, please click here. Enjoy!
Whilst the Universal Monsters series didn’t really kick off until the box office smash of Dracula (1931), Universal produced a number of significant horror / suspense films in the 1920s, before the arrival of “talkies,” or sound-cinema. These films were not supernatural in nature, as Carl Laemmle, president of Universal Pictures at the time, felt that there was no place for supernatural horror in the movies. Nonetheless, these films had definite horror elements, and the cinema-goers responded very positively. Whilst they aren’t really considered part of the Universal Monsters cycle, they are an important prelude to the cycle itself, as they developed the horror genre before the introduction of the supernatural. The first of these productions was The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame would become Universal Studios’ first major hit, as well as one of the first epic spectacles of the silent era. Whilst it wasn’t a horror story, it featured one of the first monster make-ups of Lon Chaney that thrilled the world. The Hunchback is a stirring tale of romance, revolution, and the sadness of outsiders. But how did the film get made? And who was the man behind the makeup?
THE MAKING OF THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
Lon Chaney is widely regarded as one of the biggest box-office stars of 1920s Hollywood, as well as the first American horror icon. But who exactly was he?
Chaney was born in Colorado in 1883 to deaf parents. To help with communication as he was growing up, Chaney became very skilled in pantomime. Beginning in 1902, he started a successful vaudeville career, in which his skills as a pantomime became of great use.
In 1905, Chaney married 16-year-old Cleva Creighton, and the next year had a son with her, Creighton Tull Chaney, someone who will become very important to the Universal Monsters story later. When Creighton found out Chaney’s parents were deaf, she was terrified her baby would also be deaf, and this lead to much stress in their marriage. She began to drift away from the family, and upon finding out that she was having an affair, Chaney went to her workplace and got her fired. In retaliation, Creighton went up on stage during one of his performance and attempted suicide by swallowing acid. She was taken to hospital, and luckily survived although her singing career was over. The scandal destroyed Chaney’s vaudeville career, and so he went to film. Family services also took Chaney’s son away until Chaney could provide a more stable home life.
Chaney began getting small parts in Universal Pictures films. During this time he married Hazel Hastings, who he had met in his vaudeville days. Having now married, Chaney and Hastings gained custody of Chaney’s son. Little is known about Hastings, but it is known that they had a good marriage and were together until Chaney died in 1930.
Chaney had his breakthrough performance as “The Frog” in The Miracle Man (1919), putting his make up and incredible physicality to use as a contortionist crook. It was a big critical and commercial success, scoring $3,000,000 at the box office on a budget of $126,000. Chaney became known for his transformative performances, particularly in the films of Tod Browning, with whom he had a productive creative friendship, appearing in 10 of his films.
Chaney had bought the rights to the story of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, a novel by French author Victor Hugo first published in 1831. He saw in it the chance for a creative make-up, an athletic performance, and an epic production. He tried but failed to get the film made on his own, but when he came to Irving Thalberg, studio manager at Universal Pictures, Thalberg took over production, managing to get Carl Laemmle to agree to a large budget. He agreed to take on Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, the titular hunchback. Lon Chaney also helped secure Wallace Worsley, a popular film director of the silent era, as the film’s director.
Lon Chaney put his signature make-up / creature creation skills to good use as Quasimodo, crafting his first truly physically monstrous character. Chaney sculpted new features with a soft wax called Plasto, sculpting these on to his face to create exaggerated cheekbones and the massive boil / tumour that eclipses his right eye. Plasto was ironically used by morticians to keep the faces of corpses fresh for their funerals. For the mouth of Quasimodo, Chaney used a wire device inside of his mouth to misshape the jaw, and created some false, broken teeth made of gutta percha and laid them on top of his own. Chaney added a wig, and that pretty much makes up the face of the creature. For the famous hunchback, Chaney wore a leather hump that weighed about 20 pounds, as well as padding on the shoulders and harness that helped keep him crouched. It’s surprising that the make up and body devices allowed for so much facial expression and agility, but Chaney managed to do it!
Universal Weekly, the studio’s house publication, announced just how this would be an epic production. It planned to recreate the Notre Dame cathedral as well as the surrounding streets. For the “Gallery of Kings,” 35 statues were made. The construction of the sets took six months. A screenplay written by Edward T. Lowe, Jr. and Perley Poore Sheehan was completed by the end of 1922. For many of the crowd scenes in the Parisian squares and underworld, several thousand extras were used, with three thousand costumes made in six weeks by Universal’s costume department.
The cost of the production was somewhere between $750,000—$1,000,000, and it ended up grossing $3,000,000 at the box office. It was truly an expensive film to make, and one of Universal Pictures most ambitious projects yet, but it more than paid back with the insane critical and commercial success. Lon Chaney was a box office name, and was here to stay.
Set in Paris in 1482, the plot follows a variety of characters, living both in poverty, luxury, and the church. Quasimodo (Lon Chaney), a horribly deformed, hunchbacked bell-ringer, works at the Notre Dame cathedral in exchange for protection from the archbishop Dom Claude (Nigel De Brulier). Dom Claude’s brother, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), is a morally bankrupt man who forces the helpless Quasimodo into being his servant.
Jehan is infatuated with the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), the ward of Clopin (Ernest Torrence), self-proclaimed “King of the Beggars” and ruler of the Parisian Underworld. He forces Quasimodo to kidnap her, but he is thwarted by Captain of the Guard, a man called Phoebus (Norman Kerry), who has also fallen for Esmeralda. Quasimodo is arrested and sentenced to a humiliating public whipping; when he screams that he needs water after being abandoned, still chained to the platform, only Esmeralda offers him pity and gives him water.
Later, Esmeralda is arrested and charged with the attempted murder of her love Phoebus, which was actually committed by Jehan. On her way to be hanged, Quasimodo takes her from the street into the cathedral, crying “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” Clopin uses this news that she is to be hanged to spark a revolution, which has been brewing for a long time. Quasimodo, mistaking the swathe of revolutionaries for attackers, rains rocks and molten lead down on the crowd. Jehan takes his chance and assaults Esmeralda; Quasimodo kills Jehan, but not before being mortally wounded with a knife. He crawls to the bell-tower, rings his own death knell, and dies alone. A recovered Phoebus and Esmeralda are united.
I’ve been looking forward to writing about this film for two specific reasons: firstly, it is of course the first of the Universal Monster films; and second, I hadn’t actually seen it until yesterday. So it was great to finally, after all these years, see where the Universal Monsters started.
However, whilst the film is monstrous, I don’t know if I’d consider it a monster movie. Quasimodo, under all the deformities, is basically just a normal guy. Calling him a monster because of his deformities seems a bit crude, and similar attitude to disability is seen in a few other moments in the movie – in the Parisian underworld, beggars only pretend to be disabled! However, I don’t know if this is a genuine problem, because Lon Chaney infuses so much emotion into his performance, that you don’t really see Quasimodo as a monster. He is terrifying, and the way Chaney kept licking his lips and sticking his tongue out particularly got under my skin. But there are so many moments – such as when he first sees Esmeralda, or when he cries for water after being whipped, that you see how genuinely tortured and miserable Quasimodo is. It’s a brilliant, heartbreaking humanist performance, and I think it actually combats the dismissive attitude present to this day that somehow those who are deformed or disabled are not actually people.
In addition to his humanist performance, the physical extent of Chaney’s performance is absolutely amazing. Seeing him jump around and climb the exterior of the Notre Dame is incredible – some particular moments, such as when he’s swinging from gargoyle to gargoyle, are especially stunning considering he is doing it without the aid of technology and computer graphics. There’s one shot in the movie that’s particularly incredible, which is a bird’s eye view from the top of Notre Dame and shows Quasimodo sliding down a rope to the ground below. This wasn’t actually done by Chaney, but professional strongman Joe Bonomo, but it’s impressive nonetheless.
Despite being the titular character, though, Chaney is just one of about four or so main characters, all of whom have excellent actors accompanying them. It really is more of an ensemble piece. Whilst Chaney might’ve got top billing, he wouldn’t really get his true horror film vehicle until 1925’s Phantom of the Opera.
Patsy Ruth Miller is particularly incredible as Esmeralda, and in a few scenes actually steals the scene from Chaney. Her face is so full of life and wonder, and she expresses emotion on screen in a grand but believable scale – hard to do in the silent era, and you can see how hard it is to do with some of the lesser roles in the film such as Gringoire (Raymond Hatton). It’s totally believable that everyone falls in love with her character, and it’s hard not to as a viewer of the film. You really will swoon whenever she’s on screen. Miller was a powerful actress.
Norman Kerry’s Phoebus is a bit troubling though. He’s actually intended to be married at the beginning, and just kind of drops his fiancée so he can sleep with Esmeralda. He even goes so far as to introduce Esmeralda to his fiancée and her mum! But his intentions eventually become a bit more honourable, and by the end of the film everyone seems to have forgotten he’s a bit of a prick.
The art design of the film is also spectacular – the recreation of the Notre Dame is so real that you’d think Universal filmed the film on location. I didn’t notice in the film but in long shots the towers of the cathedral are glass paintings – it’s either because the paintings looked incredibly real or because the print was old, but I’ll believe for now that it was the former. The streets are also full of detail, making great use of Universal’s medieval backlot of sets.
It’s interesting considering the story as an American one rather than a French one; it gives the revolutionary elements of the film a certain bite, and I can’t help but feel that perhaps there are certain political elements considering the post-war inception of the film. Everyone seems incredibly embittered and angry at King Louis XI; a historical element, true, but it seems a bit unnecessary as the story is about Quasimodo at it’s heart, not revolution. It makes me think that the revolutionary element was intended for a political reason.
I quite enjoyed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and was thrilled every time Lon Chaney appeared in makeup. However, despite this, as well as the incredible performance by Patsy Ruth Miller, I did feel the film was perhaps a bit overlong; it could have been about twenty minutes shorter, and I’m not entirely sure that much would have been lost. Essentially, the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame is the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda, and I did feel the film lost touch of that at points. Nevertheless, it’s a great watch and should be seen by all, not only for its historical importance but because of Chaney’s performance which pulls the film together.
Well that’s it for today folks. Next time on IT’S ALIVE! The Universal Monsters Saga, we’ll be moving forward to the year 1925, and presenting the first true Universal horror film, as well as the greatest of American silent horror films. We’ll also be continuing the strange story of Lon Chaney and presenting the facts of his all-time greatest film role. See you then!