Updated: Apr 19, 2019
It’s more challenging for me to write about silent movies than talkies. I always have to explain what version I watched. For example, IMDb lists four running times for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). I’m not certain which one is offered for streaming on Amazon Prime; it seemed to fall somewhere in between 98 and 117 minutes. Also, I have no idea if the particular soundtrack chosen accurately represents what original audiences would have heard when it opened in theaters.
This one includes the noise of the crowds and the bell ringing at the cathedral. But while orchestral in nature, the music sometimes feels a little too modern for a film made in the 1920s. And when the film itself jumps or stutters, the soundtrack continues seamlessly. I suppose I prefer it that way; it would be too disrupting to have the music skipping, as well. All of this is to say that it’s hard to imagine what watching a silent movie would have been like in its intended state.
I have to put aside many of the regular elements I critique and focus only on what I see on the screen. So, while it’s more challenging, it’s also more helpful in examining the visual aspects: the sets, the acting, the costumes, the action, etc. I enjoy it; it causes me to pay more attention and to perhaps get more out of the experience. In this case, I find myself comparing The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Universal’s other big silent feature, The Phantom of the Opera, which came two years later.
This is for several reasons: both are early Universal Monster films, both star Lon Chaney, and The Phantom of the Opera is one of the few silent movies I’ve seen in recent years. When comparing, I think The Phantom of the Opera is a better movie; however, I think Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame gives a better performance. This is odd to me because I don’t particularly prefer his physical appearance, but I think he has more to do.
It’s difficult to call The Hunchback of Notre Dame a “horror” movie; however, it’s obvious to call it a “monster” movie. Chaney’s Quasimodo looks horrific, sure. But when he’s carrying away the lady, it’s to save and protect her, not kidnap and harm her. At the same time, this doesn’t mean he’s sympathetic. He chooses not to quietly accept the cruelty of the townspeople, but to taunt them in return, throwing cement blocks at them from high in the bell tower of Notre Dame Cathedral.
The movie itself paints him as a monster from the very beginning:
Deaf – half blind – shut off from his fellowmen by his deformities the bells were the only voice of his groping soul. To the townspeople he was an inhuman freak, a monstrous joke on nature – and for their jeers he gave them scorn and bitter hate.