Victor Hugo's THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME has had several screen adaptations, but there's still a lot to be said for the 1923 Universal silent production starring the great Lon Chaney.
Chaney's performance as the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo is a triumph of pantomime that emerges from behind arduously applied makeup. Chaney based his appearance exclusively on the illustrations in Hugo's novel, and his sensitivity and bodily contortions combine to make the physically ugly Quasimodo a genuinely sympathetic character.
Chaney is ably supported by a fine cast: Pretty Patsy Ruth Miller is memorable as Esmeralda, the gypsy whom Quasimodo hopelessly loves, Norman Kerry as Esmeralda's hero Phoebus, Ernest Torrence as Clopin, formidable leader of the beggars, and Brandon Hurst as Jehan, the evil cleric who lusts for Esmeralda. All were guided under the direction of Wallace Worsley, although Patsy Ruth Miller has said that Chaney had a hand in directing portions as well.
Just a thought about the acting: Silent films utilized pantomime in place of spoken dialog in order to communicate and express emotion. As such, it was perfectly suited to its purpose, requiring a complex combination of body control, concentration, and style on the part of the actor. There is nothing flawed or inferior about this kind of acting; it was merely an alternative method of performing that became a lost art with the advent of sound. HUNCHBACK shows why Lon Chaney is widely regarded as the finest practitioner of silent film acting technique.
The film's period authenticity is truly something to marvel at, even 91 years later. The sets representing 15th century Paris were meticulously designed and constructed and artfully photographed, so as to convey further the appearance of scale. So much filmmaking today is achieved digitally, that it becomes quite easy to appreciate the level of real craftsmanship that went into HUNCHBACK.
The splendor of this film can now be enjoyed more fully with Flicker Alley's beautiful Blu-ray edition. Presented in association with the Blackhawk Film Collection, HUNCHBACK has been mastered from a tinted, 16mm print struck in 1926 from the original camera negative. This HD transfer eclipses the 2007 Image DVD in every way, and features a fabulous score (the same one on Image's DVD) compiled by Donald Hunsberger and conducted by Robert Israel that adds greatly to the magnificence of the film.
Extras include an informative audio commentary and booklet essay by Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake; footage of Chaney out of makeup on the set; the 1915 film, ALAS AND ALACK, with Chaney as a hunchback character; an extensive HD photo gallery; and a digital reproduction of the original souvenir program.
Every lover of silent films should not hesitate in picking up this wonderful edition of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME - I give it my highest recommendation.