The Hunchback of Notre Dame


(1939) ★★★★

BBC2: Saturday 21 November, 6.45am

With the possible exception of The Quiet Man, the BBC could not have chosen a more fitting memorial screening for Maureen O’Hara than her Hollywood debut in Victor Hugo’s classic beauty and the beast tale. That same year, Maureen O’Hara had appeared alongside Charles Laughton in Alfred Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn, and he insisted that RKO sign her for the role of Esmeralda, the free-spirited gypsy girl who bewitches Paris, even as the city is closing its gates to ‘foreigners’.

Laughton is, of course, the bell-ringer Quasimodo. His limping simian gait and grotesquely misshapen features make him the most famous Quasimodo of them all, more celebrated even than Lon Chaney’s (the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’ starred in Tod Browning’s 1923 silent film version). On massive sets constructed at RKO’s ranch in the San Fernando Valley, the Notre Dame cathedral towers over a superbly realised 15th century version of Paris, brought to the screen by German-born director William Dieterle in a dazzling medieval kaleidoscope with sweeping crowd scenes and striking Expressionist lighting.

The tenderness tentatively shared between Esmeralda and Quasimodo contrasts starkly with the cruelty of the time. To counteract the heretics, says a justice court flunky, we must build more prisons. “It is not more prisons we need,” says Cedric Hardwicke, “it’s more executions.” And Hardwicke’s chief of justice is consistent in his cruelty. “She is the trap Satan set for me!” he exclaims of Esmeralda, under whose spell he has guiltily fallen. “So she must die.” Notre Dame is her sanctuary, Quasimodo her saviour, in a stormy stand-off.

In the wake of the Friday13th attacks on Paris, the words of Harry Davenport’s dotty but kindly King Louis XI now ring out as resonantly as those cathedral bells: “All over France there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphal monuments of the past. Every arch, every column, every statue, is a carved leaf out of our history. A book in stone glorifying the spirit of France.” All that’s missing is La Marseillaise.

In any year other than Hollywood’s banner annus, The Hunchback of Notre Dame might have expected more than two Oscars (for music and sound). But 1939 was the year of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, The Roaring Twenties, Only Angles Have Wings, Goodbye Mr Chips, Gunga Din, and Ninotchka. Not to mention three John Fordmovies: Stagecoach, Drums Along the Mohawk, and Young Mr Lincoln.

It would be with Ford and his Stagecoach star John Wayne that Maureen O’Hara would later make The Quiet Man, the other film that defines her enduring status as a Hollywood great. And for those who wish to remember Miss O’Hara’s flaming tresses in Technicolor, 1947’s Sinbad the Sailor follows at8.35am.

Certificate: PG

Duration: 117min

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