During the 1930s RKO wasn’t known as a prestige movie studio.
It wasn’t a poverty row operation, but neither did it have the sort of big budgets and lavish productions that were the pride of outfits like M-G-M, Fox, and Paramount.
But for 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame , RKO pulled out all the stops.
A replica of Medieval Paris was built on the RKO ranch in the San Fernando Valley, with a life-size recreation of the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral . It was so tall that local officials insisted on a blinking red light being placed atop it as a warning to aircraft.
An RKO sound team was dispatched to France to record the cathedral’s bells – those recordings were later incorporated into the film’s soundtrack.
The man many viewed as the greatest actor of the day – Britain’s Charles Laughton  – was hired to play the deformed title character of Victor Hugo’s story. William Dieterle  – revered for such films as A Midsummer Night’s Dream , The Story of Louis Pasteur , The Prince and the Pauper , The Life of Emile Zola , and Juarez  – was given directing duties.
True, the studio tried to save some money by casting a couple of key roles with relatively inexpensive newcomers. But as we’ll see, even those players were on the cusp of greatness.
Before it was over RKO spent nearly $2 million on the production, making it the studio’s most expensive to date. But the results were hard to argue with.
For this Hunchback is not only the best version of the tale ever committed to celluloid, it is a remarkable artistic achievement – hugely emotional and entertaining, packed with political/social subtext, and marked by a fantastically detailed sense of time and place...not to mention great performances.
Just how good the film is going to be is obvious from the first scene, a huge celebration unfolding in the shadow of Notre Dame. Thousands of Parisians are celebrating a feast day with drinking, carousing, jugglers, and dancers. Dieterle, who cut his cinema teeth on German expressionism, captures the chaos with rapid editing and tilted camera angles that give the proceedings an almost drunken feel.
Laughton’s Quasimodo, the cathedral’s deaf, deformed bell ringer, is introduced in an amazing closeup as his head is thrust through a curtain. He’s been nominated as the king of fools, an honor given the ugliest person in Paris. He more than earns it.
Laughton spent nearly five hours each morning undergoing the transformation. Half of Quasimodo’s face seems to be melted and sagging. One useless eye is several inches lower than the other. His teeth are a jagged ridge. His hair a thinning mop.
RKO deliberately kept photos of Laughton in costume from circulating. The result was that theater audiences reacted to Laughton’s first on-screen appearance with the same horror and fascination as the Parisians who inhabit the story.
O’Hara plays Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer with whom just about every male character in the story is infatuated. This was the first American film for the Irish actress, and she is ethereally beautiful.
O’Brien, a member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater  company making his movie debut, is astonishingly youthful and handsome as the poet Gringoire. It’s difficult to reconcile this young Adonis with the scruffy old outlaw O’Brien played 30 years later in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch .
The screenplay by Sonya Levien  and Bruno Frank  hits the main plot points and themes of Hugo’s sprawling novel , but it also has undercurrents of particular resonance for audiences in the years leading up to World War II.
There is, for example, the theme of knowledge versus ignorance, the waning power of religion in the face of reason. The script makes a big deal about the arrival in Paris of the first printing press, a technological advance that threatens to make knowledge available to all citizens (and which is seen as the devil’s work by certain members of the nobility and the clergy).
Even more topical is the persecution of the gypsies, which contemporary audiences could easily equate with the plight of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
And one cannot escape the film’s overall view that this was a world filled with casual cruelty, injustice, and superstition. (When Esmeralda is condemned as a witch, her pet goat is also sentenced to die on the gallows.)
The film has several celebrated set pieces that will stand among some of the best sequences in film.
There’s Gringoire stumbling upon the Court of Thieves, a gathering of criminals where he would have been hanged if not for Esmeralda agreeing to take him as her husband. There’s Quasimodo’s rescue of Esmeralda from the hangman, swinging to the rescue on a rope, snatching her up, and swinging back to the cathedral where he screams “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!”
And finally there’s the storming of Notre Dame, with the citizenry laying siege to the church in an attempt to save Esmeralda, and a misunderstanding Quasimodo decimating them by hurling wooden beams, stone blocks, and a cascade of molten lead from the bell tower.
And then there’s Laughton’s performance. He doesn’t say anything for the first hour of the film – it’s a purely physical performance. But just watch the emotions that cannot be held back by prosthetics and makeup.
It’s a monumental, horrifying, heartbreaking performance capable of leaving even today’s jaded moviegoer an emotional wreck.
RKO did cop out in at least one major instance: The film’s ending.
In Hugo’s book just about every major character dies horribly. Esmeralda is hanged and years later, Hugo writes, workers in the charnel house where bodies of criminals were thrown discovered the skeleton of a deformed man, its arms encircling the bones of a young woman. Evidently Quasimodo crept into the mass grave, settled in next to Esmeralda’s corpse, and starved to death.
Well, that would have been too gruesome for audiences in 1939. Instead Esmeralda escapes to live happily with Gringoire, and the brokenhearted Quasimodo is last seen addressing one of the cathedral’s gargoyles: “Why was I not made of stone – like thee?”
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Great Adaptations”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- February 1: The Man in the Iron Mask  (1939) Not Rated
- February 8: The Hunchback of Notre Dame  (1939) Not Rated
- February 15: Wuthering Heights  (1939) Not Rated
- February 22: Gulliver’s Travels  (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler  is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com . He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.