Lon Chaney’s The Hunchbank of Notre Dame turns 95. Let’s take a look at the history of this classic film.
It is not uncommon for actors and actresses to get typecast early in their career. For some actors, this results in a career of typecasting and a life behind a mask. Yet few actors pushed into these roles have ever been as talented as Lon Chaney. The 95-year-old film The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the crown jewel in his crown and is the first true Universal Monster Movie.Movie Poster for Hunchback of Notre Dame – Courtesy of Universal
Best known as “The Man of a Thousand Faces,” Chaney began his career as a stage actor. However, he eventually turned his career towards acting in film to support his family. There, Chaney brought a rare combination of electric and character-driven performances, with some of the best makeup work ever put on screen. Chaney took his method extremely seriously, with many of his makeup processes going with him to the grave.
Chaney picked up early success in monstrous roles in other films, such as playing Fagin in the 1922 edition of Oliver Twist that gave him considerable clout. Chaney had already established himself as a makeup and actor combo, but the transformative nature of the role allowed him to ask for nearly unprecedented power in the development of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He had acquired the film rights to the Victor Hugo novel years earlier, with hints he would make the feature overseas if needed.Lon Chaney as the Hunchback of Notre Dame – Courtesy of Universal
That level of commitment was never required to make this picture a reality. Instead, Chaney was able to pitch the film to Irving Thalberg, who believed it had to be a Universal picture. However, shooting on location was not a common act in the early 1920s, meaning Thalberg and Chaney would have to convince Universal to build accurate representations of Notre Dame and Paris on the Universal lot.
Thalberg pushed Carl Laemmle to fund the picture, and given Chaney’s success at the box office, they got what they needed. Most importantly, they somehow agreed to build a to-scale model of Notre Dame, making the production one of the most expensive in Hollywood at the time.
Even today, the production design of Notre Dame is staggering. The 19-acre set is nearly unparalleled in modern filmmaking, both in grandeur and its attention to detail. The staggering six-month build was worth the wait and remains the most impressive recreation of the cathedral on film to this day.
There is no doubt that the visual flair coursing through The Hunchback‘s production is special. Director Wallace Worsley brought a level of spectacle that had rarely been seen on film before. Yet the standout of the film remains Chaney, who delivered a masterclass performance.Lon Chaney as the Hunchback of Notre Dame – Courtesy of Universal
When you bring up The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Chaney’s role in the film, the prosthetic makeup is the only place to begin. The facial deformity came from a brilliant combination of “cotton, collodion, adhesive tape, nose putty.” Along with a fuzzy wig and hair appliances, the ensemble took more than 3 hours to apply.
Rumors have long swirled about how the actor created the effects. Frankly, we don’t really know, even to this day. The hump that he wore on his back weighed about 20 pounds, allowing him to showcase a surprising athleticism. This, along with the facial makeup allowed Chaney to create the definitive Quasimodo on screen.
This also falsely delivers the impression of Quasimodo as a monster. After all, the deformed creature is scary at first sight. However, Chaney’s performance turns him into one of the most terrifying Universal Monsters while portraying him as a sympathetic character unlike any other in the collection.Lon Chaney as the Hunchback of Notre Dame courtesy of Universal
Chaney fully commits to the role, featuring a physicality rarely seen. He could barely communicate underneath all the facial prosthetics, which translates well to a silent film. His anguished performance is touching and can be read easily in the scenes where he is tortured. As Chaney cries out to the heavens, it is a moment of both embarrassment and great pain that cracks through the screen.
Finally, what continues to make Hunchback so touching are the trademarks of the doomed loved story. Quasimodo loves Esmeralda (also played brilliantly by Patsy Ruth Miller), but it is quickly clear that they can never be together. Yet he gives his life for her, saving her from death and literally taking a knife in the back to protect her.Lon Chaney as the Hunchback of Notre Dame courtesy of Universal
In his final moments, we see Chaney watch Esmeralda reunite with Phoebus (another strong performance from Norman Kelly). As we observe their reunion and cut back to the reactions of Quasimodo, he realizes everything he has done was worth his life. As he crawls to ring the bells one last time, a moment of tragedy is forever immortalized as one of sacrifice.
To this day, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is among the most accessible films in history. You can watch it this moment across YouTube, as the film entered the public domain only 28 years after its release. Despite being 95 years old, it remains a classic. It also marks a true beginning of Universal Monster Films that would come to define horror for decades.
What do you think of The Hunchback of Notre Dame? Do you enjoy the performance from Lon Chaney? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below! Get ready for a retrospective series on many of the Universal Monster Movies from yours truly!