by: William Dieterle
Produced by: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay by: Sonya Levien
Adapted by: Bruno Frank
Victor Hugo's novel of Fifteenth Century France comes to life on the screen under the fine direction of William Dieterle and the splendid efforts of a stellar cast and crew. The conflicts of the poor as the reigning rich impact their meager existence is profound in this film from scene one. The prejudice against the horribly misshapen Quasimodo and the discrimination against the Gypsies entering this shaky society unfolds with the plot. There in the theater audience you are safe and well-fed, but up on the screen it seems almost too real for an audience. The genius of Charles Laughton is not surprising as he becomes the quintessential Quasimodo. Maureen O'Hara's debut in American films as the beautiful, enchanting Esmarelda was well received and the beginning of an illustrious career. As an outcast, Quasimodo falls in love with Esmarelda whose warm and gentle heart sees past his grotesque form and he then becomes her protector. His solace and sanctuary has always been the bell tower where he is safe from prying eyes and the ridiculing masses. Now Esmarelda, falsely accused of a crime depends on Quasimodo to keep her safe as he twice saves her from death. Unlike the novel, this film has a happy ending, with the tender Quasimodo watching his Esmeralda ride way with her love. She does, however, give a glance over her shoulder in reverence and appreciation to her friend who remains behind.
They pulled no punches on this one - not hesitating to show some of the horrid practices and customs of those times and the ugly side of human nature. This is one that when you emerge from the theater you feel you have been there - in that other time - in that other century.
Behind the Scenes' of the Hunchback:
This was Maureen's first American film. In 1939 she was under contract with Laughton and Eric Pommer, and was brought to the United States for the very purpose of playing Esmeralda. With the arrival of Laughton and O'Hara, the cast became to form. Edmund O'Brien was retrieved from the New York stage, and established actors Thomas Mitchell and Harry Davenport were also cast in major roles. Both Mitchell and Davenport had that same year appeared in "Gone With The Wind."
Director William Dieterle, had tremendous skill in directing masses of people. This is very evident in the huge crowd scenes that were in epic proportions in Hunchback . Maureen recalls that Dieterle always wore white gloves and she couldn't figure out why. She later concluded that in was of assist in directing the huge masses of people as it made his hands visible from greater distances. Maureen mentioned the accommodations, make-up, feeding and costuming of so many cast member which was done efficiently in tents with one huge tents for costuming.
MGM's Irving Thalburg had earlier suggested to Laughton that he could play the Hunchback. Five years later, Laughton returned to America, and worked diligently to perfect his imitation of this historical character. He insisted on having make-up artist Perce Westmore from Warner Bros. Westmore's services apparently cost $10,000 which was big bucks in those days. Getting the right look for Quasimodo was a joint effort on the parts of Laughton and Westmore. They implemented many features in the design - a false eye, contact lens, false teeth, and earplugs so Laughton could have at least a partial sense of being deaf. Laughton was weighted down under pounds of heavy make up and appendages, which had to be applied every day. The studio would not allow photos taken of Laughton in his makeup prior to the film's release so there would be an element of surprise for the audience.
Two stuntmen also had to endure the same chore as did Laughton. They had to wear the same costume and make-up for doing the dangerous stunts in the film. They did not use a double for Maureen in that famous scene where Quasimodo swoops down and grabs Esmeralda, rescuing her from the hangman's noose. When stuntman Dick Crockett held Maureen high above his head from the bell tower Maureen noted that "I later saw that there was no board for foundation up front, and if Dick's arm had wavered even an inch, I would have fallen hundreds of feet down."
Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered on December 31, 1939 at Radio City Music Hall, RKO's last move of the year, and of the decade. Hunchback one of RKO's most successful films, cost over 1.8 million dollars, at the time of it's initial release brought in over 3 million dollars at the box office. Hunchback indeed gave RKO the kind of reputation which George Schaeffer had intended. Variety gave the film fantastic reviews..and predicted a rosy future for the young Miss O'Hara.
Maureen reflects great pride in being a
of this epic film. It was nominated for two Academy awards - Alfred Newman for best
and sound technician, John Oliver was nominated for best sound. The film is world renown is
remembered as one of the great classics in cinema