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Image Entertainment presents
The Hunchback of Notre Dame Ultimate Edition (1923)

"Sanctuary! Sanctuary!"
- Quasimodo (Lon Chaney)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 25, 2007

Stars: Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Ernest Torrance
Other Stars: Tully Marshall, Nigel de Brulier, Brandon Hurst, Raymond Hatton
Director: Wallace Worsley

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, torture)
Run Time: 01h:53m:10s
Release Date: October 09, 2007
UPC: 014381304626
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- A-B+A- A-

DVD Review

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was an epochal film in a number of ways. It moved Lon Chaney into the first rank of stars with his impressive and sensitive performance as the title character; it moved Universal in one fell swoop from a B-movie factory to a major studio; and it was a grand historical epic on a level that was hardly considered possible in America. But it managed all of these with panache and it still holds up well for the most part.

The story for most of its running time follows Hugo's novel decently well, with the necessary changes to placate the Catholic Church, a turn that Hugo would have found appalling had he still been around. In 1480s Paris, gypsy girl Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) is beloved by four men: Phoebus, the Captain of the Guard (Norman Kerry); poet Pierre Gringoire (comic relief Raymond Hatton); Jehan, evil brother to the archdeacon of the Cathedral of Notre Dame (Brandon Hurst); and Quasimodo, the deformed and deaf bellringer of the Cathedral. When Jehan orders Quasimodo to abduct Esmeralda, the hunchback is instead captured by Phoebus and is forced to suffer the justice of King Louis XI (Tully Marshall). Romance blooms between Phoebus and Esmeralda, infuriating Jehan to the point of stabbing Phoebus and framing the gypsy. Condemned to die, Esmeralda is rescued to sanctuary within the cathedral by Quasimodo, who was pitied by her while on the pillory. But mighty forces are at work as the rabble of Paris, led by King of Thieves Clopin (Ernest Torrance) combats the King's Guard and the wrath of the hunchback.

The main change from Hugo is splitting the evil Dom Claude into the saintly Don Claude (Nigel de Brulier) and his evil brother Jehan. The souvenir program even contains a letter confirming that there is nothing that the Church finds offensive in the film. What still survives from Hugo's original is the sense of class warfare between the downtrodden and the aristocracy, with the confrontation at the church standing in for the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Clopin's dialogue almost reads like a communist rallying harangue.

But the main attraction is of course Chaney. Considering how heavy his makeup was, and how elaborate, it's amazing how much expression he manages through it. But being the son of deaf parents himself, he was a true master of pantomime and conveying what dialogue could not. The consummate silent film actor for that reason, he overcomes the makeup to create an unforgettable character that is both sympathetic in his pathos and amusing in his childlike delight. Perhaps best of these is the exuberant joy he expresses after rescuing Esmeralda as he first rings the bells then jumps aboard, riding them jubilantly as he experiences his secret delights. The supporting cast doesn't quite measure up, though Miller is not bad and Torrence is quite memorable. Hurst's Jehan is a little too broadly drawn to satisfy, and Kerry is pretty much the same stiff he would be two years later opposite Chaney in Phantom of the Opera.

The sets and the production values were outstanding for the era, especially keeping in mind Carl Laemmle's desire to do things on the cheap whenever possible. Chaney, however, the driving force behind the production, would have none of that, and in concert with Irving Thalberg made sure that this would be a memorable spectacle. And that's true whether the sets are practical or mattes or miniatures; there's always an epic scope to the proceedings that makes it feel like the major production it was. Not for nothing did Universal call this a "Super Jewel." It's too bad director Wallace Worsley was rather unimaginative in his staging and camera work.

Sadly, the movie apparently no longer exists in 35mm (though rumors persist to the contrary, with only 16mm prints extant. And two full reels cut from the roadshow version for the general release in 1923 don't apear to exist in any form whatsoever. But it's certainly happy that we have what we do. Hunchback remains a milestone of film making, and this is a fitting swan song to Film Preservation Associates' relationship with Image Entertainment.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: As mentioned above, there are some obvious limitations that are going to have to be dealt with when you have a movie that exists only in 16mm. But where prior versions (all apparently derived from the same source material) were fairly dismal, with blown-out whites and weak blacks, the new 16mm print is a revelation. There's a wide range of greyscale throughout, and it enhances the viewing experience substantially. I've found it hard to sit through this at times before, but this version just sped by. The picture is modestly windowboxed to prevent loss of picture to overscan; that's a necessity here because important picture information frequently goes all the way to the edge of the frame and on typical televisions heads would be cut off or cut into. There's substantial wear, as one might expect, but no serious damage beyond the occasional visible splice. The rendition includes color tints reflecting the tinting on the original print, and blue night scenes cover up much of the wear. There's an unavoidable bit of modest jerkiness since the film was at least in spots apparently shot at something less than 24 frames per second, but one gets used to that pretty quickly. There's no combing or ghosting such as has been a problem with all too many silent film releases over the years, which is a blessing. A major restoration could probably make this look some better, but that's also not likely to be cost-effective for a public domain movie, sadly.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0(music only)yes

Audio Transfer Review: A compilation symphonic score was produced by Donald Hunsberger, and the result was arranged and conducted by Robert Israel. It sounds excellent, with good range and nice percussion resonance. Hiss and noise are nonexistent. It adds greatly to the grandeur of the production to have a full orchestra behind it rather than a small ensemble or even an organ.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Production Notes
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by author Michael F. Blake
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Alas and Alack
  2. Facsimile program
  3. Still galleries and 3-D glasses
Extras Review: Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake contributes an "audio essay" which in my neck of the woods qualifies as a commentary, since it's both full-length and scene-specific. Blake is THE expert on Chaney, and he shares much of his wealth of knowledge here, including precisely how Chaney accomplished his Quasimodo makeup. It's certainly worth a listen, and he's occasionally critical of Chaney's performance so don't think his dedication to his topic makes him a sycophant. Disc producer David Shepard includes a beautiful facsimile of the program sold at the roadshow presentations, and there's also a small flyer with production notes by Blake. There are also 2 pairs of 3D glasses. Why? Because at the time of release there were stereopticon stills that allowed a 3D view of various scenes. These have been translated to red/blue anaglyph. Since I wear glasses already, it took a while to get them properly adjusted, but they come across reasonably well in three dimensions. There's also a gallery of about 60 stills, posters, ad mats and the like. About one and one-half minutes of silent footage of Chaney in street dress visiting the cathedral set are included too.

A very rare short, Alas and Alack (1913) would be one of Chaney's earliest motion picture appearances, and he plays a dual role as a fisherman and as a hunchback in a fairy tale that his wife (Gail Morgan) relates. The last few minutes of the one-reeler are missing, but it appears to have a Maud Muller type theme of "What might have been". Curiously, this picture is not listed in Blake's book The Films of Lon Chaney. It might be The Sea Urchin under another name, which from its description in that book also featured Chaney as a hunchbacked fisherman. The description otherwise bears little similarity to what's on the screen, however, so I remain unsure as to exactly what this is. If it is The Sea Urchin then it is in all likelihood Chaney's second film appearance. In any event, it's more than welcome to see.

The layer change is a little halting since a dual-layer disc format was used instead of a more typical RSDL presentation, which allows a few extra bits to be coaxed out.

Extras Grade: A-


Final Comments

While one can hope that better elements exist, this is by far the best looking Hunchback ever released on home video and one of the most outstanding releases of a silent film in quite some time.


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