The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Blu-ray (1923/2014)Cast: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry Director: Wallace Worsley Cinematography: Robert Newhard Studio: Ambient/Blackhawk Films/ Flicker Alley FA0033 [3/18/14] Video: 1.33:1 for 4:3 black & white 1080p HD Audio: Silent, PCM stereo music score by Donald Hunsberger Intertitles: English Extras: Bonus slideshow – 100 stills, Alas and Alack 1915 short, footage of Chaney in costume, Reproduction of original souvenir program with music selections, Audio commentary track by Chaney scholar Michael F. Blake, Illustrated booklet with essay by Blake. Length: 110 minutes Rating: ****1/2
The only surviving materials for The Hunchback of Notre Dame are the tinted 16mm reductions which were made in the 1920s. When they were made the original 35mm nitrate film already had scratches and blemishes in its few years of existence, and those have long been destroyed. So this restoration is not up to the quality of most silents from Criterion, but although the beginning of the film is rather splotchy, it gets better as it goes on, and the tinting (blue for the night scenes, etc.) is nice. Since the 35mm originals are no longer available, this is the best we’re ever going to get. The speed is properly adjusted so this doesn’t have the silent movie jerkiness. The varied soundtrack music is quite fitting, with organ for the religious scenes inside the cathedral, orchestral for those outside, and so on. Some feel it could be darker-sounding in some places to point up the melodramatic elements, and I agree. Like most silents, the intertitles are on screen for too long; guess they figured audiences were very slow readers.
Chaney, who was already the top character actor in films, spared no effort to make his Quasimodo look like he had just stepped out of the original Victor Hugo novel about 15th century Paris. Hugo’s story has had several screen versions, but Chaney’s appearance and performance in this one are a triumph of pantomime. He makes the physically ugly Quasimodo into a really sympathetic character. The accuracy of the settings is something to see too; everything is very artfully filmed. Only the bottom story of Notre Dame was constructed on the Hollywood set, the upper part was a carefully-aligned miniature. There was a gigantic array of extras in the crowd scenes in front of Notre Dame. This film made a success of Universal, which was just starting out, and they proudly kept all the sets on their backlot for over 40 years.