Monday, August 6, 2007

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - Part 1

“The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1939) has a very literate script as a foundation and from this beginning, taken from the Victor Hugo novel, stands as fine a film, as evocative of time and place, as ever was made. Performances by Charles Laughton as Quasimodo the Hunchback, Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda, and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Frollo are superb.

Throughout the film the main theme of superstition and prejudice, which we are warned seek “to crush the adventurous spirit of man,” vies with the enlightenment of a new day. Looming above Paris, and seen in the background of many shots is the magnificent Cathedral of Notre Dame. It represents both the majestic spirit of man, the heights of his creativity and his faith, and yet it also represents a past of superstition and cruelty. Opposite this is the new invention of the printing press, which King Louis XI, played by Harry Davenport, marvels over, calling it a miracle when he is told that a book which would normally take months to copy by hand can be printed in a few weeks, thereby allowing the common folk to have access to knowledge.

Frollo, the chief justice, a complex man whose need to control is greater than his compassion, fears and loathes the printing press, which he says can “destroy a kingdom.” There are similar discussions throughout the film about where the world is headed with all these new fangled inventions. While watching the Fools Day celebrations, a fellow in the background behind the King keeps comically interrupting his conversation about Columbus’ assertion that the world is round by flatly commenting, “It’s flat.” The King, though he may become enlightened, has many in his court who are jealous of their privileges and of the way things are and should always be.

He is a great philosopher, this king, who comments on Quasimodo’s fascination for the Fools Day crowd, “The ugly is very appealing to man…one shrinks from the ugly, yet wants to look at it. There’s devilish fascination in it. We extract pleasure from horror.”

There are many horrors in this Paris of a long ago day. The poor are forced to beg or steal. The Gypsies, like Esmeralda, are reviled and persecuted, and anyone who runs afoul of the nobility is tortured. Esmeralda is told she is from “an evil race.” How sad to think that when this film was released in 1939, another European culture was persecuting Gypsies, Jews, and other so-called “inferior” persons as a means of expressing their own self-superiority. To think that the same superstition and prejudice could have lingered unchecked in five hundred years is appalling. It keeps one from viewing aspects of this film with amused condescension, like the world is flat and the king’s taking only one bath a year, from the perspective our own self superiority. The thought that prejudice should exist from one century to the next should keep us humble.

It is a Paris of wet streets and shadows. The shadows are ruled by an underclass of beggars and thieves. Frollo, captivated by Esmeralda and at the same time, repulsed by his lust for her, sends his ward, Quasimodo, into the streets to catch her. Sir Cedric’s multilayered performance is fascinating. Frollo is not a cardboard cutout bad guy; he is a complex man capable of greatness and susceptible to failure.

Quasimodo is caught, accused of attacking Esmeralda, and publicly whipped. Though taken as a child under the care of Frollo and raised in the bell tower of the Cathedral, Frollo regards Quasimodo more as a pet than a foster son, and there is perhaps no sadder, more devastating scene than when Frollo rides past Quasimodo, strung up on the pillory, and refuses to help him or even acknowledge him. We see by Laughton’s expression never has anyone been so alone.

The fickle crowd begins to jeer him and throw things, but Esmeralda brings him water, and when he is released back to the Cathedral, Quasimodo can only obsess with joy and wonder that someone was actually kind to him.

More tomorrow on "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939).

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