Saturday, August 1, 2015

#212: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Wallace Worsley, 1923)

Wallace Worsley is a name that has largely receded into history. The former Broadway star and silent film director's name never entered the pantheon of timeless greats, and he's largely unknown today. Granted, he's not as innovative or as formally interesting as his more celebrated peers like Murnau and Griffith, but based on the evidence of this film and 1920's The Penalty (also starring Lon Chaney and also reviewed on this site), he deserves more attention.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is Worsley's most famous film, thanks in large part to the enduring popularity of the Victor Hugo source novel and the iconic title performance by Lon Chaney, but those aren't the film's only virtues. Worsley capably and confidently handles the tricky feat of wrangling a literary adaptation with several characters, hundreds of extras, and an event-filled plot without succumbing to bloat, unevenness, numbing of the viewer, or a draggy pace. The characters are fleshed out and distinct, nothing seems rushed, but the action really moves. The story is a melodrama/adventure hybrid with a Gothic horror feel and a central romance that drives the plot, and Worsley handles this mixture of genre and tone with skill and cohesion.
You're probably familiar with at least one version of this story. Worsley's film sticks closely to Hugo's novel. Chaney is Quasimodo, the deformed, disfigured bell ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the servant of Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the much nicer archdeacon Don Claudio (Nigel De Brulier). Jehan concocts a scheme to kidnap Gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), adopted daughter of Clopin (Ernest Torrence), figurehead and leader of the oppressed beggars of Paris, and makes Quasimoto do his dirty work. Quasimoto is captured in the act, Jehan slinks away, and major events are set in motion. Meanwhile, Esmeralda is falling in love with aristocrat and town hunk Phoebus (Norman Kerry), which also sets several major events in motion. Norman Kerry's biography on contains the following sentence: "He often wore fancy wax mustaches." You will be happy to know he wears a fancy wax mustache in this film. His Hollywood head shot also shows him wearing a fancy wax mustache.
The large cast, including several characters I didn't even mention, is uniformly excellent, particularly Chaney and Miller. Miller has a face that was destined to put her in the movies, and Chaney has a different face in every movie. Chaney's physicality and willingness to put himself in all kinds of painful appearance-altering devices for the sake of his character in is full evidence here. In addition to the large cast of characters, the film called for hundreds of extras. In this shitty era of clicking on a mouse to create crowds of people, it is especially enjoyable to see actual throngs of humanity playing fictional throngs of humanity. The producers picked up extras on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, paying them one dollar a day for their trouble. This method of acquiring extras meant that a large chunk of them were prostitutes and petty criminals. The prostitutes, by unconfirmed reports, made some extra money offering their services after shooting wrapped, and other extras got their pockets picked by the petty crooks. The producers eventually added fifty Pinkerton detectives to the cast of extras to cut down on the pocket-picking. Take that, CGI nerds. Ninety years from now, legendary Hollywood stories from our current year will be about people making things in an office on a computer and a few blandly attractive actors jumping around in front of a green screen. Fuck that shit.
This film, a passion project for star Chaney, who owned the rights, almost didn't happen, falling through on several occasions and moving from director to director (including Erich Von Stroheim and Tod Browning) until Worsley got the job. Universal, known at the time for cutting costs and making things on the cheap, decided to pour lots of time and money into this film and make it a signature prestige project. The lavish sets took six months to build, and that work is visible on the screen. This really looks like a 15th century Paris neighborhood (yeah, how would I know that etc., but I'm talking imaginatively and emotionally here), even though it's a Hollywood studio. The costumes took six weeks and are also very elaborate. All this time and money paid off, and the movie was a massive hit, becoming Universal's most profitable silent film. It earned $3 million at the box office, which was a massive pile of dough in 1923. Normally, I don't give a shit about box office receipts, but somehow I find silent film figures like that interesting. Why? I don't know.
Besides its superficial success, the movie is an artistic success, too. Worsley gets so many iconic images from his cast doing their thing on those gorgeous sets, and there's so much detailed activity and life in every frame. I dig this movie.

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