It contains the set-piece wherein, swinging on a rope, Quasimodo saves Esmeralda, the gypsy girl with whom he is smitten, who has been framed for a capital crime and is about to be executed, and delivers her to church sanctuary, causing the people of Paris to send up unbridled cheers: with director William Dieterle’s cunning alternation of anxious quiet and the jubilant noise of just humanity, one of the most thrilling scenes in popular cinema. However, Hollywood’s opulent 1939 version of Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, Notre Dame de Paris, set in the fifteenth century just after the Hundred Years’ War, updated the book’s sentiments, while also substantially revising the plot, to target by proxy the current bane of Europe’s existence, the Nazis. No one seems remotely French in Dieterle’s striking though superficial film, and the misapplication of German Expressionism to its material, although what one might expect from Dieterle, generates a stylistic headache. Artificiality abounds. Add to all that the self-pity and drippy pathos with which Charles Laughton swamps Quasimodo, the deaf, grotesque hunchback and church bell-ringer, and you have a recipe for box office and little else. “Why was I not made of stone like thee?” Quasimodo asks one of Notre Dame Cathedral’s gargoyles as he watches far below the girl whose life he saved—Hollywood’s Esmeralda isn’t burned alive—pass out of his life forever with another fellow. Hollywood, keeping him also alive, couldn’t resist giving Quasimodo at the last a killer line that reeks of synthetic tragedy.
The best performance comes from Cedric Hardwicke as Frollo, Quasimodo’s guardian and Louis XI’s chief justice, who honestly believes that because he lusts after her that infernal gypsy girl must have bewitched him. How about she looks like Maureen O’Hara?—at 19?
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