"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) on Blu-ray -- A Tale of Old Hollywood!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame.jpg

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), Blu-ray.  A Flicker Alley release from 2014.

Video on this one is 1080p/24, in 4:3 Aspect Ratio, with tinted Black & White.  This is a Silent Film; accompanied on this disc by a more modern (undated), orchestral score, presented in lossy, Dolby Digital 2.0.

Included is a Commentary track from film historian, and professional makeup artist, Michael Blake; pretty good except when he falls into the trap of simply describing the action happening on screen.

Extras include a 2 minute piece of behind the scenes footage of Chaney on the Notre Dame set -- showing him out of makeup! (very rare).  Also an absolutely dreadful, 1-reeler from 1915 (transferred from a 1939, 16mm dup), evidently included solely because Chaney appears in it, briefly, also portraying a hunchback.  Also two rather nicely produced, auto-advance slide shows (with "Ken Burns", image shifting effects):  One of production stills, publicity pieces, and also still photos (in storyboard format) depicting one of the more significant scenes to be cut from the film when the Road Show version was trimmed for general release.  The other is a detailed capture of the Program Book which was sold as part of the Road Show release.

NOTE:  This transfer exhibits substantial age related damage and image softness (no doubt due to the source elements).  See the full review for details.  Despite that, it comes easily....


In the early 20s, Carl Laemmle, Senior's, Universal Pictures was a DISTINCTLY 2nd tier studio.  "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" would change all that, but not without a struggle!

It was Lon Chaney, himself, who pushed for the picture to be made; only to run into road blocks and indifference.  The general consensus was, Hollywood Studios of the time were incapable of producing such a massively staged, period piece.

After rejections from Universal and several other studios, and after a failed attempt to raise his own financing to Produce it, Chaney took the idea BACK to Universal for a 2nd try.  But by this time, the guy running the studio for Laemmle was the misleadingly boyish-looking, 24-year old, Irving Thalberg, who would soon leave Universal and become internationally famous as the Wunderkind of MGM.  And Thalberg was immediately struck with an idea:  This was a picture which could change Universal forever!

Thalberg took charge of pitching the idea to Laemmle, who was also pleased to learn a desperate Chaney was willing to star in the picture for salary alone -- no percentage cut.

Having finally gotten a studio to bite, Chaney then had to face reality:  This was, after all, still just Universal!  They really didn't have the quality of Directors and actors on contract needed for a production of this magnitude.  It soon became clear Chaney could not talk them into "borrowing" the talent from other studios, either!  Chaney resigned himself to pressing on, regardless.

And even that wasn't the end of the struggle!  Universal's money people, back in New York, did not share Thalberg's vision for the picture.  At all!   They wanted it done NOW, so they could shove it into the exhibition calendar with all the other quick-churn flicks coming out of their Universal "film factory".

Consider:  In the midst of making this massive epic -- mounting huge sets, coordinating a cast of thousands, and begging equipment from every other Studio in Hollywood -- Universal was, simultaneously, in production on SEVENTEEN OTHER pictures -- all, it should be added, eminently forgettable!

Here is where Thalberg stepped in once again.  He had already determined to leave Universal (and did so even before Hunchback was completed).  But BEFORE he left, he convinced Director Wallace Worsely simply to IGNORE, all the whining from New York and deliberately take the picture over budget!  The result was a whopping, $1.25M production -- so expensive the studio had NO CHOICE but to market the film as a "Superproduction" -- giving it the full, red-carpet, Road Show treatment -- in a forlorn effort to get their money back!

However, their dudgeon at all this would have been short-lived, because the film was a smash hit from the get go!  Easily Universal's most profitable film, it transformed the studio in the minds of exhibitors into a Major player.  And it established Lon Chaney -- already regarded as a talented character actor -- into one of that rare new breed of entertainment celebrities:  A Star.

There is such an odd mix of the sublime and ridiculous in this film!  The enormous sets, packed with extras, and Chaney's amazing performance are, of course, the sublime.  The ridiculous comes from Worsley's ham-fisted Directing, and the laughably melodramatic performances of the other, Universal contract actors in the cast!  To modern eyes, these turns look so bizarre as to suggest parody.  But it's just that Hollywood had not yet evolved past its stagey roots.  And the sort of talent Universal had on contract was absolutely the STAGIEST.

By stagey, here, I mean the sort of exaggerated gestures and facial expressions used by stage actors to make sure their performances are clear to the folks way off in the cheap seats.  This sort of stuff just looks silly when captured by camera in close up or medium shot.  The art of acting for the camera was still being invented, and the talent at Universal had not gotten the memo.

The sad truth is, MOST of the films produced in the Silent era no longer exist in ANY form.  For many of those that do, their survival turned on a strange quirk of Marketing:  Home film rentals!

Not a single 35mm print survives of the 1923 Hunchback, and of course its negatives are long gone.  All existing prints derive from 16mm copies made for home rental in the late 20s and 30s -- the Netflix of its time!  And THAT'S why we can see the 1923 Hunchback today.

In addition, the film was allowed to lapse into the Public Domain in the 50s -- before Studios realized the money to be made off of TV licensing, and WAY before Studios realized the money to be made off of re-issuing catalog titles.  And so there are any number of shoddy transfers out there, often badly butchered in the editing.

As with all silent films, it's hard to get a handle on what's missing as the length of the feature can vary significantly simply by how the old, hand-cranked camera speed (17 to 20 frames per second) was raised to modern film speed (24 frames per second).  In the case of this film, it's certain that 17 to 20 minutes were lost simply due to the trimming of the Road Show version down to a length more suitable for multiple daily showings in general release.  Since the Road Show version was never reproduced in 16mm, that footage is lost forever.  But beyond that, another 15 minutes or so appear to have been lost in various edits.

This Flicker Alley transfer (at 109 minutes) derives from a 1926, 16mm dup -- perhaps the most complete print available.  It includes only very modest Tinting of the Black & White.  (E.g., night scenes tinted blue, day scenes amber.)  And time has not been kind to it.  Supposedly some clean-up was done on this back around 2006, but if so it must have been limited to physical restoration, and rather limited at that.  PQ on this disc exhibits *ALL* the various types of age related damage.  It takes some getting  used to, but it's still watchable.  In addition, PQ is rather soft -- presumably from "generation loss" (copies of copies) and the nature of the 16mm source print.

AQ on the modern musical score -- presented in lossy stereo -- is OK, but nothing to get excited about.  The score itself is also just average quality, both for musical invention and for appropriate evocation of the scenes.

Of course, the real marvel here is the film survives AT ALL.  And the chance to see Chaney's performance, PARTICULARLY in contrast to the hammy, scenery chewing of the other actors, is truly a treat!  Make no mistake, even to the original audiences it was clear what Chaney was doing on screen was a damn sight better than all the other "acting" on display.

The Commentary track also makes clear the technical, filmmaking prowess of the Universal crew was head and shoulders above the Directing and supporting cast acting.  The use of "hanging miniatures" and matte paintings is spectacular.  As are the elaborate night scenes -- actually shot at night.

And THAT meant, given the slow speed of the Black & White film stock of the time, Universal had a massive logistics problem on its hands:  Pouring enough light onto those huge, back lot sets!  Each afternoon, trucks were dispatched to every other Studio in Hollywood -- to borrow lights by the HUNDREDS, miles of cables, and scores of generators.  All of that had to be set up in time for the evening's shoot.  And then it all had to be dismantled and RETURNED to the other Studios in time for them to do their own work the next day.

This went on night after night for two months!

All because Thalberg told them to hang the expense!

And the result is certainly impressive!  Even the Point 'N Laugh moments with the supporting cast acting can't diminish the fact this TRULY IS a spectacular production.

So carping aside, the bottom line is this is still a fun film, and barring a full digital restoration  (which would seem a lost cause, given the only available source elements), this is likely the best this film can look for home theater.