The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered at New York’s Astor Theatre, followed four days later by a general release in which audiences marveled at the hideous, deformed figure at the center of it.
A couple of silent versions of Hugo’s classic 1831 novel had been released in the prior two decades in France and the U.S., but they did not have the impact that the adaptation starring Lon Chaney Sr. would have.
Chaney set the template for all who would play Quasimodo on the big and small screen through the end of the 20th century, including Charles Laughton and Anthony Quinn (sound versions released in 1939 and 1956, respectively), Warren Clarke and Anthony Hopkins (1976 and 1982 TV adaptations), and the voice of Tom Hulce (Disney’s 1996 animated musical).
From his small leather makeup kit (now at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum), the actor had already produced countless faces and bodily varieties, eventually earning him the nickname “Man of a Thousand Faces.”
In creating the pathetic title character of the Hugo novel, though, Chaney’s preparation was particularly arduous, with three-and-a-half hours each day applying makeup (including a right eye simulating a growth specified in the novel) and prosthetics (such as a twenty-pound plaster for the hump). His dentist assisted in creating his false teeth.
A knotted wig, nose putty for warts and on the cheeks, use of cotton and flexible collodion, and adhesive tape completed the stunning transformation.
All that makeup had to be endured through a seven-month shoot, the longest of Chaney’s career. Understandably, he later called it “the hardest part I ever played, that’s all.”
But, when all was said and done, the actor had managed, beneath the monstrous exterior, to convey the inner torment of his character. He had started by interviewing people with various physical disabilities, then ensured that his makeup and prosthetics left enough muscle mobility to distort his face into different expressions. The result was an exquisite portrait of unrequited love, ineradicable melancholy and loneliness.
Moreover, through Chaney’s empathetic depiction of Quasimodo, the film formed a bridge between the costume dramas that was already a major part of the Hollywood dream factory and the horror genre that Universal would perfect in the 1930s.
Audiences would be prepared for Boris Karloff’s inarticulate, misunderstood, maligned monster in Frankenstein because Chaney had outlined a similar character in Hunchback.
Few other actors were as acculturated to dealing with such outsiders as Chaney. From communicating with his deaf and mute parents, he had learned how to express thoughts and emotions through body language. These skills likewise enabled him to thrive in silent cinema.
Though a notoriously private person, Chaney gave the moviegoing public a hint at what informed his performances in an autobiographical article he wrote in 1925 for Movie Magazine:
“I wanted to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since ‘The Hunchback,’ such as ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ ‘He Who Gets Slapped,’ ‘The Unholy Three,’ etc., have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories which I wish to do.”
Irving Thalberg, Hollywood’s “Boy Wonder” at age 23, gulped when Chaney, still seething over Universal’s mistreatment of him from a decade before, insisted on $2,500 over and above his original salary—but he convinced the other executives at the studio that the actor was worth it.
Thalberg proved correct. Even costing $1.25 million—the second most expensive silent that Universal ever released—Hunchback more than earned back its money.
Like many releases of the silent era, the film exists now only in adulterated form—in this case, in 16mm, with an estimated 10 to 15 minutes of footage still missing. Even so, when I saw it first almost 50 years ago on my local PBS station along with another Chaney silent, He Who Gets Slapped, I was awed by what I saw. What I have learned about him since then has only increased my respect for him.