A Tale of Two Hunchbacks

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In 1831, Victor Hugo wrote what would be considered one of his most memorable literary works, Notre-Dame de Paris. When it was translated in 1883, it became known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the title by which it and most subsequent adaptations are known by. The first film adaptation was a French short in 1905, Esmeralda, named after the main character of the story. Despite being named in the title of the English translation, the hunchback Quasimodo was often considered a secondary character. This remained true for three more silent film adaptations but changed forever when Universal released their adaptation, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in 1923. The credit for Quasimodo’s rise to prominence rests completely on the legendary skills of make-up artist and actor Lon Chaney.

By the time Lon Chaney was hired for the role of Quasimodo, he was an accomplished actor on the verge of the prime of his career. At age 40, he had been acting in films since 1912 and while he had numerous successes, such as The Penalty, Oliver Twist and The Shock, The Hunchback of Notre Dame would elevate his career to new heights. There are countless reasons why this version remains such a timeless classic but the make-up work of Lon Chaney clearly stands out. He was the favorite to play the role from the beginning and Chaney himself was highly interested in playing Quasimodo. While the expansive sets were astounding and the large cast gave an epic feel to the production, Chaney owned the film from his first few seconds on screen.

While the character of Quasimodo is often considered a horror character alongside such true monsters as Dracula or the Mummy, he’s actually a very sad and tragic human being. Chaney’s make-up work is perhaps the most horrific version of Quasimodo and adds to the desire for many to place him in a rogue’s gallery of monsters. But Chaney also gave life to Quasimodo through his sympathetic performance, amplified by his acrobatic skills. Yet, there is no denying that when his shirt is ripped off and his hairy humped back and disfigured body is displayed for the first time, audiences will openly gasp. While Patsy Ruth Miller is good as Esmeralda and Brandon Hurst is truly evil as Jehan, Quasimodo’s master, Chaney’s performance outshines them all. The audience is engaged in his story from his first moment on screen to his unfortunate end in the final moments of the film.

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Chaney would go on to make another 20 films over the next seven years, including many of most famous roles, including that of the lead in The Phantom of the Opera in 1925. Sadly, the world would lose Chaney in 1930 to lung cancer. Thankfully, many of his films remain with us, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was restored in 2007 and released on Blu-ray by Flicker Alley in 2014.

While Chaney’s portrayal of Quasimodo was legendary, RKO Pictures would attempt to make their own fortune with the character some nine years after Chaney’s death. Charles Laughton would be the primary star for this version with make-up work by Perc Westmore. This Quasimodo is nowhere near as horrific, which may have helped in him being more appealing to the audience. However, with less acrobatics and over-the-top theatrics, Laughton just never comes close to stealing the film as Chaney did. Furthermore, the script really shifts the focus to Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara) and is much more of a romantic tale than one of adventure as seen in the 1923 version.

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The characters of Claude and Jehan Frollo were once again changed from the original novel due to concerns about having the main villain being a priest. In the novel, Claude was a villainous archdeacon while here he is the almost saintly archbishop. Likewise, Jehan was portrayed as a drunken teenage student in the novel but here he is the middle-aged villain. Another key change is the stronger focus on the plight of the gypsies, which may have been in direct reference to what was happening to the Jewish people in Germany at the time. Despite these changes, both versions of the story don’t suffer and, perhaps, are even improved by the revisions.

However, the 1939 version does make one key change to the plot that greatly changes the ending of the story. Quasimodo’s death in the 1923 version is powerful but RKO opted for a happy ending to the story and allowed Quasimodo to live. Granted, the image of him atop Notre Dame commenting on how he wished he was made of stone is somewhat sad, the fact that he lived is a drastic departure from the original story. It doesn’t necessarily ruin the film but it did take away what I feel was a more impactful ending as seen in 1923. You can judge for yourself as the 1939 version is currently available on Blu-ray from Warner Brothers for less than $15.

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Ultimately, I feel the 1939 version is a watered-down adaptation when compared to the 1923 Chaney film. While the RKO production is more polished, it was almost too clean at times, a feeling I often have whenever I watch MGM’s 1938 adaptation of A Christmas Carol. Personally, a grittier presentation is much more appealing and, when considering the softer and more romantic ending seen in 1939, I ultimately feel the Lon Chaney adaptation is superior. Both are lavish productions but it comes down to personal preference. However, with personal opinions aside, each has something to offer that many modern films are lacking…heart and compassion. No matter how monstrous Quasimodo may appear, you cannot help but feel for him as the world around him spins out of control.

There have been many other adaptations throughout the decades. From Anthony Quinn in 1956 to Anthony Hopkins in 1982, the tale of the gypsy girl Esmeralda and the hunchback Quasimodo remains timeless. With Disney announcing a live-action remake of their 1996 animated version, it appears as if Quasimodo will continue to ring the bells of Notre Dame for many years to come.

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Classic Horrors Club – The Cat, Canary and Ghost Breakers are Scared Stiff!

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Let’s kick off the new year with some laughter and a few scares as Jeff and I fire up episode 26 of the Classic Horrors Club Podcast. This month, we take a look at Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940) before wrapping it up with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in Scared Stiff (1953)!

To participate in our next meeting just call:

(616) 649-2582
That’s (616) 649-CLUB, or…

Email classichorrorsclub@gmail.com, or…

Join us in our clubhouse at:

www.facebook.com/groups/classichorrors.club/

Mihmiverse – Looking Back at 2018

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The Kansas City Crypt is open again as the new year begins and this month on episode 51 of the Mihmiverse Monthly Audiocast, the Monster Movie Kidtakes a look back at 2018. It was a great year for watching classic flicks on the big screen and it’s time to reflect on the best moments of the last twelve months.

Be sure to check out the online home of the films of Christopher R. Mihm for all of the great merchandise and information on how you can help make future films happen! Queen of Snakes is coming in 2019 and That Which Lurks in the Dark has just been announced. Check out the website to learn how you can contribute to the making of both upcoming chapters in the Mihmiverse. As always, tell ’em Monster Movie Kid sent you!

2018: A Year in Review

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2018 is in the books and what a year it was. It was a great year full of opportunities to watch older films on the big screen at events like the Kansas Silent Film Festival, Silents in the Cathedral and Cinema a Go-Go. Unfortunately, I missed out on Monster Bash and the annual ​Christopher R. Mihm film premiere but plans are afoot to correct that in 2019.

Jeff Owens and I continue to improve each and every month on the Classic Horrors Club Podcast. I also continue to contribute to the Mihmiverse Monthly Audiocast with the Kansas City Crypt segment along with my reviews on the Dread Media Podcast. I also made a return to the B Movie Cast and found time to leave some voicemails over at Monster Kid Radio. All of these bring me great joy!

Now, let’s take a look at those 2018 statistics.

How many films did I watch in 2018?

Action: 7

Animated: 38

Comedy: 40

Documentary: 8

Drama: 12

Fantasy/Horror/Sci-Fi: 215

Musical: 4

Mystery/Thriller: 5

War/Western: 3

Total films watched: 332 (quite a bit more than last year’s 248 and tying my total back in 2010 but still not quite the all-time record of 452 in 2012)

Movies Watched in a Movie Theater: 59 (32 new and 27 old; second highest total but way down from 79 last year)

Now, it’s time for the official best-of-the-best and worst-of-the-worst. As with any list, they’re subjective to my viewing experience and mood at the time. Enjoy them and maybe you can get a few suggestions along the way.

Bohemian

Top Ten Movies Seen in a Movie Theater

1. Bohemian Rhapsody
2. Black Panther
3. The Avengers: Infinity War
4. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
5. They Shall Never Grow Old
6. Ant-Man and the Wasp
7. Solo: A Star Wars Story
8. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
9. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
10. Deadpool 2

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Worst Movies Seen in a Movie Theater

1. A Wrinkle in Time (total misfire and a disappointing adaptation)
2. Suspiria (Style over substance, I liked a few elements but just didn’t enjoy it overall)

Top Ten Movies Seen on Home Media for the First Time

1. The Lost World (1925) (my first time seeing the restored version)
2. Day of Anger (1967)
3. Hostiles (2017)
4. Coco (2017)
5. The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
6. Return of the Fly (1959) (always thought I saw this but realized I never watched it all)
7. Santo en el Museo de Cera (1963) (I watched a lot of Santo this year but this remains my favorite)
8. A Knight’s Tale (2001) (I know, late to the party)
9. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013)
10. Guns of the Apocalypse (2018)

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Worst Movies Seen on Home Media for the First Time

1. Leaf Blower Massacre (2013)
2. Leaf Blower Massacre 2 (2017)
3. The Open House (2018)
4. It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987)

Looking ahead to 2019, I’m excited about Glass, all three main movies coming from Marvel (Avengers: End Game, Spider-Man: Far From Home and Captain Marvel), as well as Stan and Ollie. Of course, there’s also Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Toy Story 4, It: Chapter Two and Star Wars: Episode IX, just to name a few. I also plan to revisit the Marx Brothers films this year along with Laurel and Hardy, as well some 007, Zatoichi and there’s always my Hitchock journey, which continues to haunt me.

Happy New Year’s everyone! Thank you for your support! Here’s to what awaits us at the cinema in 2019!