The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Toronto Film Society presented The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) on Saturday, June 22, 2024 as part of the Season 76 Virtual Film Buffs Screening Series, Programme 10.

Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures.  Producer: Pandro S. Berman.  Director: William Dieterle.  Screenplay: Sonia Levien, Bruno Frank, based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  Cinematographer: Joseph H. August, A.S.C.  Editors: William Hamilton, Robert Wise.  Music: Alfred Newman.  Released December 29, 1939.

Cast: Charles Laughton (The Hunchback Quasimodo), Maureen O’Hara (Esmeralda), Cedric Hardwicke (Frollo), Edmund O’Brien (Gringoire), Thomas Mitchell (Clopin), George Zucco (Procurator), Minna Gombell (Queen of Beggars), Rod La Rocque (Phillippe).

Remember the program Magic Shadows? A long-forgotten schoolteacher told a certain writer about this new program on TVOntario; it was hosted by Elwy Yost from 1974 to the mid-1980s. Every day, for 5 days, Elwy would present a segment of a fine classic film along with his excellent commentary. This is where many young people in Ontario received their first exposure to the Golden Age of Cinema…one segment at a time. Think back, fifty years ago, rushing to the TV after dinner to watch another segment of The Hunchback of Notre Dame: the lovely Esmerelda played by the teenaged Maureen O’Hara; Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the evil Frollo; and the Hunchback, played with such pathos by Charles Laughton. Having watched the film again, after fifty years, The Hunchback still evokes feelings of thrills, tension, heartache, and sadness; the scene of an angelic beauty giving a tortured soul a little drink of water brings one to tears.

The year 1939 was a particularly special year for cinema. All in that same year, actor Thomas Mitchell appeared as King of the Beggars in The Hunchback and also appeared in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, Gone with the Wind and finally, Stagecoach, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

In fact, 1939 saw the release of so many excellent films that it is considered the greatest year in Hollywood history. There were ten films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1939, which wasn’t that uncommon; in the 1930s and 1940s, usually eight to twelve films received Best Picture nominations. Over the years, the number of Best Picture nominations decreased to only 5 films, but the Academy changed it to 10 in 2009; AMPAS President Sid Ganis said, “Having 10 Best Picture nominees is going to allow Academy voters to recognize and include some of the fantastic movies that often show up in the other Oscar categories but have been squeezed out of the race for the top prize.”

Not to be outdone: in 1939, Canada hosted a Royal Tour by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, and 1939 is the founding year of our National Film Commission, the predecessor to the National Film Board of Canada.

Back to The Hunchback

The Hunchback set is credited for being one of the most magnificent and expensive sets ever constructed. The set director was six-time Academy Award nominated Van Nest Polglase, head of the design department at RKO Pictures. He worked on 333 films between 1925 and 1957, including Citizen Kane and Bringing Up Baby (one of our favourite screwball comedies). In her autobiography, Tis Herself: An Autobiography, Maureen O’Hara described arriving in mid-August at “the sprawling RKO ranch. When I first arrived on the [Hunchback] set, the sight of it awed me. The outdoor sets were astounding. A fifteen-acre recreation of fifteenth-century Paris had been designed from a four-hundred-year-old wood carving of the city, then had been built in intense summer heat on a $250,000 budget. That was big bucks back then. Every scene in the film was shot on a set. We didn’t go on location to Paris, but anyone who watches the film would believe that we had.” The city and Cathedral were recreated in meticulous detail; the cost would be about $4,974,622 in 2021 dollars. Overall, the film was one of the most expensive to make, at $1.8 million; accordingly, although well received, The Hunchback was reported to have turned a profit of only $100,000 at the time.

The Hunchback was directed by William Dieterle, a German actor and director who moved to the United States in 1930. In addition to The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Dieterle is known for directing The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941) and the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Life of Emile Zola (1937). He was also known to have kept his thick German accent.

In her autobiography, Maureen O’Hara described this hilarious scene:  “One morning I arrived on the set and was shocked to find the town square full of live chimpanzees, baboons, and gorillas. They made a mess all over the place and it smelled like a zoo. The day before, Dieterle had said, ‘I vont two hundred monkey on ze set tomorrow morning.’ His poor English had failed him. I found him running around the cathedral steps with his white gloves flailing, screaming, ‘Mein Gott! Vat iz diss?‘  His assistant, Peter Berneis, answered, ‘The monkeys you ordered, Mr. Dieterle.’  ‘No, you idyet! I vonted two hundred priests. I vonted monks, not monkeys!‘”

Not the first time that a foreign-born director had some difficulties with his English, in the filming of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz called for a stampede of riderless horses. He confidently called out, “bring on the empty horses!” causing Errol Flynn and David Niven to double up with laughter. “You lousy bums,” Curtiz shouted, “you and your stinking language…you think I know f**k nothing…well, let me tell you – I know F**K ALL!”

Notes by Carol Whittaker and Bruce Whittaker

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