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
Based on The Hunchback of Notre Dame 
by Victor Hugo
Starring Charles Laughton
Maureen O'Hara
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Thomas Mitchell
Edmond O'Brien
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Joseph H. August
Edited by William Hamilton
Robert Wise
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • December 29, 1939 (1939-12-29)
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 as Quasimodo and Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda.[3][4] Directed by William Dieterle and produced by Pandro S. Berman, the film was based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

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.


The film opens in 1482 with King Louis XI and his close advisor, Frollo, the King's Chief Justice of Paris, in a printing shop. Frollo is determined to do everything in his power to rid Paris of 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 Festival of Fools. Esmeralda, a young gypsy girl, is seen dancing in front of an audience of people, including the King and Frollo. Quasimodo, the hunchback and bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, is crowned the Pope of Fools until Frollo catches up to him and takes him back to the church.

Esmeralda is caught by Paris' guards and is being chased after until she seeks safety in Notre Dame, to which the Archbishop of Paris, Frollo's brother, 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. At this point 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, whom she is frightened of. She tries to run away from the hunchback until he catches up to her and physically carries her away. Pierre Gringoire, a poor street poet, witnesses all this, calls out to Phoebus and his guards, who capture Quasimodo just in time. Esmeralda is then saved and starts falling in love with Phoebus. Gringoire later trespasses the Court of Miracles but is saved by Esmeralda from hanging by marrying him.

The next day, Quasimodo is sentenced to be lashed in the square. Frollo, seeing this, realizes that he can't stop the sentence because it already happened, and abandons him instead. However, Esmeralda arrives and gives him water, and this awakens Quasimodo'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. Afterwards she dances 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. Afterwards, Gringoire visits Esmeralda in her prison cell to console her. Meanwhile, Frollo confesses his crime to his brother, and is in charge of Esmeralda's trial and sentences her to death. After she is about to be hanged in the gallows, Quasimodo saves her by taking her to the cathedral.

When Gringoire and Clopin realize that the nobles will 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. After the King reads the poet's pamphlet, Frollo confesses his crime to him and Gringoire comes in to talk to Louis. After Quasimodo and the guards fight off the beggars, he sees Frollo in the bell tower seeking to harm Esmeralda, and throws him off the cathedral top. Later that morning, Esmeralda is pardoned and freed from hanging, and her Gypsy people are also finally freed. Then, she leaves with Gringoire and a huge crowd out of the public square. The film makes it clear that in the end Esmeralda truly loves Gringoire. Quasimodo sees all this from high on the cathedral and says sadly, to a gargoyle, "Why was I not made of stone, like thee?", and the film ends.



The characters of Claude Frollo and Jehan Frollo are changed as in the 1923 film: instead of being the bad archdeacon as in the novel, Claude is good, and his original position as a villain was given to his younger brother, Jehan, who was a drunken student in the novel and again portrayed as an older man instead of a teenager. The only difference in this film is that Claude (credited as "Archdeacon" in the film) is portrayed as the Archbishop of Paris and Jehan (credited as "Frollo" in the film) is portrayed as the Chief Justice of Paris.

Award nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards:[5]


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."[6] Variety called the film a "super thriller-chiller" but found that the elaborate sets tended to overwhelm the story, particularly in the first half.[7] Harrison's Reports wrote, "Very good! Audiences should be thrilled anew by this lavish remake of Victor Hugo's famous novel."[8] Film Daily called it "compelling, dynamic entertainment."[9] 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."[10] 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.[11]

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.


  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. ^ "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-12. 
  6. ^ 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. 
  7. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety (New York: Variety, Inc.): p. 14. December 20, 1939. 
  8. ^ "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Harrison's Reports (New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.): p. 202. December 23, 1939. 
  9. ^ "Reviews of the New Films". Film Daily (New York: Wid's Films & Film Folk, Inc.): p. 4. December 15, 1939. 
  10. ^ Mosher, John (December 30, 1939). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker (New York: F-R Publishing Corp.): p. 51. 
  11. ^ Harvey, E. H. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The Harvard Crimson. Wednesday December 16, 1953. Retrieved on February 20, 2010.

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