The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939 film)

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Theatrical poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay by Sonya Levien
Bruno Frank (adaptation)
Based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
by Victor Hugo
Starring Charles Laughton
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Thomas Mitchell
Maureen O'Hara
Edmond O'Brien
Alan Marshal
Walter Hampden
Music by Alfred Newman
(musical adaptation and original composition)
Cinematography Joseph H. August A.S.C.
Edited by William Hamilton
Robert Wise
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date
  • December 29, 1939 (1939-12-29)[1]
Running time
116 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,826,000[2]
Box office $3,155,000[2]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1939 American film starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara.[3][4] Directed by William Dieterle and produced by Pandro S. Berman, the film is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel.

For this production RKO Radio Pictures built on their movie ranch a massive medieval city of Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the largest and most extravagant sets ever constructed.


Set in Paris, France during the Late Middle Ages, Louis XI, the King of France, and Jean Frollo,[5] the King's Chief Justice of Paris, visit a printing shop. Frollo is determined to do everything in his power to protect Paris from anything he sees as evil, including the printing press and gypsies, who at the time are persecuted and prohibited from entering Paris. That day is Paris' annual celebration, the Feast of Fools. Pierre Gringoire, a poor street poet, does a play in front of an audience until is interrupted by Clopin, the King of the Beggars. Esmeralda, a young gypsy girl, is seen dancing in front of an audience of people. Quasimodo, the hunchback and bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, is crowned the King of Fools until Frollo catches up to him and takes him back to the church.

Esmeralda is caught by guards for entering Paris without a permit and is being chased after until she seeks safety in Notre Dame, in which the Archbishop of Paris, Frollo's brother Claude,[6][7][8] protects her. She prays to the Virgin Mary to help her fellow gypsies only to be confronted by Frollo, who accuses her of being a heathen. Afterwards, she asks King Louis to help her people, to which he agrees. Frollo then takes her up to the bell tower where they encounter Quasimodo, of whom she is frightened. As she runs away from the hunchback, Frollo commands Quasimodo to chase after her and kidnap her. Quasimodo catches up to Esmeralda and physically carries her away. Gringoire witnesses all this, and calls out to Captain Phoebus and his guards, who capture Quasimodo just in time. Esmeralda is then saved and starts falling in love with Phoebus. Gringoire later accidentally trespasses the Court of Miracles, and is about to be hanged by the beggars under Clopin's orders until Esmeralda saves him by marrying him. Afterwards, Frollo orders the guards to arrest and round up the gypsy girls to make an inspection in an attempt to find Esmeralda, but realizes that she is not present in the group and releases them.

The next day, Quasimodo is sentenced to be lashed in the square and publicly humiliated afterwards. He then asks the Parisian townspeople for water. Frollo, seeing this, realizes that he can't stop the sentence in time because it already happened, and abandons Quasimodo instead of helping him. However, Esmeralda arrives and gives Quasimodo water, and this awakens the hunchback's love for her.

Later that night, Esmeralda is invited by the nobles to their party. Frollo shows up to the party, where he confesses to Esmeralda his lust for her in a hiding place. Afterwards, she dances with a black goat named Aristotle in front of the nobles and moves away from the crowd with Phoebus to a garden where they share a moment between each other. Frollo then kills Phoebus out of jealousy, and Esmeralda is wrongly accused of his death. Gringoire visits her in the prison cell to console her and tries to help get her free but fails. Frollo confesses the crime to his brother, and, knowing that the Archbishop refuses to help him because he is the murderer, intends to sentence Esmeralda to death for it (which he does), saying that she has "bewitched" him. Esmeralda is to be hanged in the gallows. The Archbishop claims her innocence and does not allow her to do penance; however, Frollo still orders Esmeralda to be hanged in the gallows until Quasimodo saves her by taking her to the cathedral.

When Gringoire and Clopin realize that the nobles are planning to revoke Notre Dame's right of sanctuary, they both try different methods in order to save Esmeralda from hanging. Gringoire writes a pamphlet that will prevent this from happening, and Clopin leads the beggars to storm the cathedral. At the Palace of Justice, Frollo reads the pamphlet to King Louis. After seeing a crowd protesting against the removal of Notre Dame's sanctuary law, the King realizes that the pamphlet is creating public opinion, which can influence kings to make decisions. However, Frollo warns him that public opinion is dangerous. After the Archbishop arrives to inform the King of Notre Dame's attack and that Esmeralda is innocent, Frollo confesses his crime to the King, for which Louis orders Olivier to arrest him. Afterwards, the King talks to Gringoire after reading his pamphlet.

Meanwhile, Quasimodo and the guards of Paris fight off Clopin and the beggars. Afterwards, he sees Frollo in the bell tower seeking to harm Esmeralda, and when he comes up, Frollo tries to stop him. Frollo then attempts to kill Quasimodo with a dagger, but Quasimodo, realizing Frollo's evil nature, stops him and throws him off the cathedral top. Later that morning, Esmeralda is pardoned by the King and freed from hanging due to the success of Gringoire's pamphlet. Her Gypsy people are also finally freed. Then, she comes to truly love Gringoire and leaves with him and a huge crowd out of the public square. Quasimodo sees all this from high on the cathedral and says sadly to a gargoyle, "Why was I not made of stone, like thee?".


Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda


In 1932, it was reported by The Hollywood Reporter that Universal announced that it would remake the 1923 Hunchback of Notre Dame film with John Huston writing a script and that Boris Karloff would play Quasimodo.[10]

Irving Thalberg, who was an uncredited producer in the 1923 film, considered to remake the film in 1934 and even discussed the idea with Charles Laughton. Two years later, Universal regained interest in a remake, with a fan poll being instrumental in influencing the studio in making the film. Ronald Colman, Paul Muni, Fredric March, Lionel Barrymore and Peter Lorre were the choices in the poll and in the end, Universal decided to go with Lorre, even as far as negotiating with the actor to star in the film, but the project never materialized.

A year later, Carl Laemmle, Jr. persuaded Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to buy the property from Universal as a star-vehicle for Muni. Metro refused and sold the rights to RKO, with Pandro S. Berman producing and William Dieterle directing.[11]


After hearing the news that RKO was going to remake the 1923 film, Lon Chaney, Jr. sought to play the role of Quasimodo and screen-tested for the studio. While the studio felt that Chaney gave excellent performances in his numerous screen tests, other actors would be more suitable for the part, Orson Welles being one of the many considered. Laughton was set to star as Quasimodo, but RKO offered Chaney the role when it seemed like the British actor would be unable to work in America due to troubles with the IRS. Luckily, Laughton managed to overcome his problems and got the part.[12]

Pleased with her work on Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, Laughton brought a then 18-year old Maureen O'Hara to Hollywood to play Esmeralda. According to actress Kathryn Adams, she was supposed to play Esmeralda, but lost the role to O'Hara when Laughton cabled from Ireland to Hollywood that he was "bringing Esmeralda". Adams played a companion of Fleur as compensation for losing the role.[13]

Dieterle wanted Claude Rains to play Frollo, but before he agreed to play the part, he had an unexpected encounter with Laughton on the Universal lot in which Laughton was very condescending. Rains, who had mentored Laughton and John Gielgud at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, later remarked that their encounter at the lot was the end of their relationship and refused to play the role, which would be played by Cedric Hardwicke.[14]


With a budget of 1,8 million, Hunchback proved to be one of the most expensive movies ever made by the studio. It was shot at the RKO Encino Ranch, with the interiors of the bell tower being shot at the Mudd Hall of Philosophy.

The sets of Paris and the Notre Dame Cathedral were constructed by Van Nest Polglase at the cost of $250,000, while Darrell Silvera worked as set decorator. Walter Plunkett oversaw the costume design and Joseph H. August served as cinematographer, this film being the first of his three collaborations with Dieterle.

Filming proved to be difficult for the cast and crew due to the hot temperatures, particularly for Laughton, who had to act with a lot of makeup. In her autobiography, O'Hara recalls one day arriving on the set and finding chimpanzees, baboons and gorillas. Dieterle wanted monks to be on the set but his assistant mistakenly thought he wanted monkeys because of his poor English and thick German accent.

When Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany on September 1, most of the cast and crew was in a state of fear of what was going to happen. Laughton lightened the mood by reciting the Gettysburg Address (that he had recited in Ruggles of Red Gap). Another incident of emotional filming was the filming of the scene where Quasimodo rings the bells in the tower of the cathedral for Esmeralda. Feeling in pain because his native Britain had declared war on Germany, Laughton rang the bells over and over again until he fell down from exhaustion, overwhelming the crew with emotion.[15]


The characters of Claude and Jehan Frollo are changed from the novel, as was done in the 1923 film. Such changes were made because the filmmakers were concerned that portraying the priest as a villain would violate the Hays Production Code.[16] In the novel Claude is depicted as the villainous 36-year-old Archdeacon of Notre Dame; in the film he is the good Archbishop of Paris and is older in age. His younger brother Jehan (renamed "Jean" in the film), who in the novel is a teenaged drunken student and a juvenile delinquent, is in the film a middle-aged villain who is a judge and a close advisor to King Louis XI.

Award nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards:[17]


On review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an approval rating of 100%, based on 11 reviews from critics.[18] Variety called the film a "super thriller-chiller" but found that the elaborate sets tended to overwhelm the story, particularly in the first half.[19] Harrison's Reports wrote, "Very good! Audiences should be thrilled anew by this lavish remake of Victor Hugo's famous novel."[20] Film Daily called it "compelling, dynamic entertainment."[21] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that Laughton "achieves something like a tour de force. The lines themselves (such modernisms as 'to buy protection'), along with a perfunctory plot arrangement, are among the weak features of the film, which otherwise is a vivid pictorial drama of fifteenth-century Paris."[22] E. H. Harvey of The Harvard Crimson said that the film "in all is more than entertaining." He said that "the mediocre effects offer a forceful contrast to the great moments" in the film.[23] However, Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote a mostly negative review of the film, finding it "little more" than "a freak show". Though he acknowledged it was "handsome enough of production and its cast is expert," he called it "almost unrelievedly brutal and without the saving grace of unreality which makes Frankenstein's horrors a little comic."[24]

The movie was very popular but because of its cost only made a profit of $100,000.[2]

Home video[edit]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released on September 21, 2001, on DVD by Image Entertainment. It was issued on Blu-ray disc by Warner Brothers on June 9, 2015.


  1. ^ Hanson, Patricia King, ed. (1993). The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1931-1940. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 976. ISBN 0-520-07908-6.
  2. ^ a b c Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p56
  3. ^ Variety film review; December 20, 1939, page 14.
  4. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; December 23, 1939, page 202.
  5. ^ "And You Call Yourself a Scientist! - The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)".
  6. ^ a b c "The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) - Articles -". Turner Classic Movies.
  7. ^ a b c "The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)". Turner Classic Movies.
  8. ^ a b c Schwartz, Dennis. "hunchbackofnotredame".
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved 2017-10-24.
  10. ^ Cohen, Allen; Harry Lawton (1997). John Huston: A Guide to References and Resources. GK Hall. ISBN 9780816116195.
  11. ^ Senn, Bryan (1996). Golden Horrors: An Illustrated Critical Filmography of Terror Cinema, 1931–1939. McFarland. ISBN 9781476610894.
  12. ^ Smith, Don G. (1996). Lon Chaney, Jr.: Horror Film Star, 1906-1973. McFarland. ISBN 9781476603964.
  13. ^ Fitzgerald, Michael G.; Boyd Magers (2002). Ladies of the Western: Interviews with Fifty-One More Actresses from the Silent Era to the Television Westerns of the 1950s and 1960s. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780786426560.
  14. ^ Skall, David J.; Jessica Rains (2008). Claude Rains: An Actor's Voice. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813124322.
  15. ^ O'Hara, Maureen (2004). Tis Herself: An Autobiography. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780743269162.
  16. ^ "The Hunchback of Notre Dame - film by Dieterle [1939]".
  17. ^ "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-12.
  18. ^ "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".
  19. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. December 20, 1939. p. 14.
  20. ^ "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 202 December 23, 1939.
  21. ^ "Reviews of the New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films & Film Folk, Inc.: 4 December 15, 1939.
  22. ^ Mosher, John (December 30, 1939). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 51.
  23. ^ Harvey, E. H. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The Harvard Crimson. Wednesday December 16, 1953. Retrieved on February 20, 2010.
  24. ^ Nugent, Frank S. (January 1, 1940). "Movie Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved September 18, 2015.

External links[edit]