Fifteenth Century Paris, and King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) is ruling benevolently over his French subjects, but he has rivals in the establishment, especially the religious establishment, who would undo his good works given half the chance. Today he is being show a grand new invention, the printing press which promises to revolutionise the dissemination of information given it can make books in a matter of days and not the handmade works which take far longer, and he is very impressed, but his advisor Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke) speaks of it darkly, suspicious of its potential for trouble. In that vein, the gypsies are trying to enter the city but the laws prevent them, though one woman manages to sneak in who will cause great disruption in the capital…
She is Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara), and the problems she causes are largely no fault of her own, it’s simply down to her being so darn beautiful. This was the Hollywood debut of one of the most fiery stars of the Golden Age, and her no-nonsense attitude endeared her to countless fans, as it was borne from a definite humanity that she brought out in this, one of her defining roles. And the man responsible for taking her to Hollywood? The titular hunchback himself, Charles Laughton who played the deformed Quasimodo in a performance that may have been a gift to impressionists to this day but was another example in finding the sympathy, the pity with the disadvantaged that O'Hara was able to divine in her reading.
Make no mistake, in spite of the title this version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel may have taken liberties with the text (name a classic Hollywood adaptation that did not), but it was not a one man show, and without Esmeralda’s compassion contrasting with Laughton’s self-loathing (an element that he would have felt enormous empathy for as it stood) it would not have been half the film it was. With the finest production the RKO studio’s money could buy, and plenty of it, under William Dieterle’s assured direction the look of the project was impeccable combined with an atmosphere that veered from historical intrigue to scenes that played with horror movie imagery, all with a very deft touch. We are geared to expect Quasimodo to be the monster of the story, indeed in the sequence where attempts kidnap on Esmeralda he’s basically a scary villain, but it doesn’t stay like that.
That was because the actual villain is Frollo, who has ordered the hunchback to capture the girl who he has against his better judgement fallen in love with. With his piety curdled into hypocrisy, Frollo was peerlessly played by Hardwicke in a manner that saw him essaying baddies for the rest of his career, so effective was he as icy menace, and he is a very convincing threat when he manipulates the masses into turning against those he disapproves of, not to mention the scenes where he takes matters into his own hands, including murder. Even then he was not the sole male enamoured of the leading lady, as a not immediately recognisably thin Edmond O'Brien showed up as the actor and playwright Gringoire as possibly the only man whose love of her is noble enough to be reciprocated, which renders Quasimodo’s longing all the more tragic.
Although he has been accused of playing to the pity of the audience, which he undoubtedly did, that was not the sole weapon in Laughton’s arsenal once we realise the bellringer of the cathedral is more sinned against than sinning. Come the action-packed climax, Quasimodo is slaughtering innocent Parisians like there was no tomorrow, under the erroneous impression they want to execute her – not the behaviour of a pure at heart hero, which makes him all the more interesting to watch. Yet he can be heroic as well, see the celebrated rescue of Esmeralda from the gallows where he swings down from Notre Dame like Tarzan and sweeps her up, then swings back to give her sanctuary, holding her unconscious body above the crowd like a trophy as he taunts her would-be killers. And all because she offered him water when he was whipped for trying to kidnap her, unable to explain he had been under Frollo’s orders. More ambiguous than it seems, with a strong echo of the injustices underway in war-torn Europe many of the cast and crew would have been fretting over, it may not be undiluted Hugo but it was a rollicking, moving historical adventure. Music by Alfred Newman.