The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame is one of those literary classics that have been filmed on a number of different occasions, infamously including an animated Disney version, proving that Disney can make light family entertainment out of practically anything.

Out of the several Hunchback adaptations I have seen, two emerge as superior: the 1923 version with Lon Chaney and the 1939 version with Charles Laughton. The former appears to be the only version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that is available at the Internet Archive.

Lon Chaney as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

To cast the legendary Lon Chaney as the Hunchback was, of course, the best possible choice at the time. Chaney had already made several spectacular and impressive roles, for example The Penalty (1920), but The Hunchback of Notre Dame appears to have been the role that propelled him to the status of stardom, and thus on to future legendary roles.

Unfortunately, I am less impressed with Ruth Miller as Esmeralda. So far I have never seen an actress that quite captured the youth and spirit of Esmeralda from the novel. Miller gives it her best, and that is adequate, but something is lacking. She is at least nearly the right age for the role (Esmeralda is 16 in the novel; Miller was only a couple of years older when the film was made), unlike several others; the worst example possibly being Salma Hayek who was over 30 when she portrayed Esmeralda. I am still waiting for the actress that can bring the combination of youth, naiveté, kind-heartedness and strength to the character.

In addition to Chaney’s performance, there are several good reasons for watching this film. For one thing, it is perhaps one of the most truthful adaptations of the original novel (except for the inevitable happy Hollywood ending). The sets and costumes of mediaeval Paris are stunningly majestic and beautiful. Whether historically true or not, I am not competent to say, but they certainly help to set the mood.

This film is best enjoyed if, like me, you are both a fan of Lon Chaney and of Victor Hugo’s wonderful novel. The combination of the two makes for a near-perfect film and a true classic.

Lon Chaney and Patsy Ruth Miller as Quasimodo and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Huncback of Notre Dame
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Year: 1923
Running time: 1 h 57 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: Good; classical music well edited to fit the images
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.4 G)


The Stranger (1946)

An agent for a war crimes commission decides, in desperation, to let a German war criminal out of prison in the hopes that he may lead them to another German who committed atrocious acts against humanity during World War II. This other German is suspected to hide under assumed identity somewhere in the United States. He must be found before he can commit new crimes.

Orson Welles and Loretta Young in The Stranger (1946)

Thus begins Orson Welles’ The Stranger, a film where Welles both played one of the leading roles (the German in hiding) and directed. It is one of rather few Orson Welles films that can be found at the Internet Archive, and for that reason alone deserves our attention.

This is a typical film noir in many ways, such as its dramatic camera angles and lighting, and also the script which is full of cynism and human evil.

The version of the film I link to here is an excellent quality MPEG4. If you strive for nothing short of perfection, then there is also a Matroska copy made from the same source, but it is almost five times as large, and I doubt if you will notice the difference.

This film is best enjoyed for Orson Welles, even though many of the supporting cast are also very good. Welles is, as always, excellent in his acting as well as in his directing. And if the plot happens to be just a bit too improbable for this to be any of Welles’ best films, then that just goes to show that this film is a child of its time.

Orson Welles in The Stranger (1946)

The Stranger
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Year: 1946
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: Orson Welles
Stars: Orson Welles
Image quality: Excellent
Resolution: High (960×738)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: MPEG4 (963 M)

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Legendary directory Cecil B. DeMille made two radically different films titled The Ten Commandments during his long Hollywood career. Featured here is The Ten Commandments from 1923, a spectacular silent drama that is actually two films for the price of one.

The beginning of the film consists of a lengthy prologue which tells the biblical story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. With splendid sets and some very advanced special effects (still impressive today), it starts with God’s tenth plague on the Egyptians and ends as Moses comes down from Mount Sinai. This part is grandiose and majestic, and belongs among the great epics of silent film, but it is sometimes a bit overplayed, not least by Theodore Roberts in the role of Moses.

Julia Faye, Pat Moore, Charles de Rochefort as Rameses and Theodore Roberts as Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The rest of the film (in itself a normal feature-length film) is a modern-day drama about two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One is an egoistic atheist who believes in nothing but money and power, while the other is a pious carpenter who lives with their mother and ever strives to do what is morally right. The overly simplistic and moralistic plot is sometimes hard to swallow, but the acting and production values are so good that this is just a minor annoyance.

It is difficult to avoid comparing this film with DeMille’s later The Ten Commandments (1956). Both are majestic. Neither is terribly historically accurate when it comes to the depiction of ancient Egypt. The biblical portion of the older film is only about one fourth the length of the later, which in turn has no modern section. But perhaps the bottom line is that either film is an excellent representative of its time and that both deserve to be seen, each on its own merits.

This film is best enjoyed for the biblical prologue in the beginning. During fifty minutes, the film is one glorious feast in massive sets, special effects and biblical quotes. The rest is a standard melodrama. Not bad (especially not the actors), but no better than lots of other good silent dramas.

Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque and Edythe Chapman in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments (1923)

The Ten Commandments
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Year: 1923
Running time: 2 h 16 min
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Excellent; organ music synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Excellent
Best file format: MPEG4 (1.8 G)


A Christmas Without Snow (1980)

Movies about choirs (or, rather, the individuals in them) are not all that common, but if you watch a lot of film you have probably seen a couple, such as Swedish As It Is in Heaven (2004) or English Song for Marion (2012).

Being myself a choir singer, I have definitely seen my share, and I have come to the conclusion that the majority of such films are built around a common template or structure. In terms of dramaturgy, they share a number of traits and characters. I will describe these traits and exemplify with an old TV movie, A Christmas Without Snow.

Early in a choir film, often just at the beginning, we see the Change. Something happens, usually an external force, that takes the choir in a new direction, or even causes its creation. Such Change is usually connected with the Leader, typically the conductor. In A Christmas Without Snow, this Change is the arrival of Mr. Adams, a retired musician, to take over as the Leader of the small and rather bad choir in a San Francisco church.


Almost immediately, Mr. Adams announces his intention to perform Händel’s Messiah for Christmas. This is the film’s Goal, which is often closely connected with the Change. This announcement is followed by a period of Consolidation where the choir grows and improves. During the Consolidation we get to know many of the other members, including the Soloist Mrs. Kim, who sets a good example for everyone with her exceptional voice and personality; the Dissenter Mrs. Burns, an old opera singer who creates tension through her egotistical personality; and the Disharmonist Inez, a well-meaning old lady who no longer manages to sing in tune.

It would be a boring film indeed if there was not a Crisis to upset the order and, seemingly, make the Goal impossible to reach. A Christmas Without Snow has no less than two separate Crises. First the church organ is vandalised, and there is no money to repair it. But the choir decides to do the job themselves; a Turning which resolves the Crisis. But then Mr. Adams has a stroke only days before the concert. He survives, but cannot lead the choir. Again, of course, there is a Turning to make things right. Arrives finally the day of the big concert. The church is full and the choir makes an excellent performance in the Accomplishment of the Goal.

Now, if you think I ruined A Christmas Without Snow for you by spoiling all the crucial parts, not to worry. There is plenty of plot going on in addition to the “template” events, so this nice (if a bit overstuffed) movie still offers much to discover. Not least the main story about Zoe and her frustration of having to leave her son behind while she is looking for a new job.

The structure I have outlined above, with a Change, a Goal, a Consolidation, a Crisis, a Turning and an Accomplishment, is one you will be able to recognize in almost any choir movie you watch. There may be slight variations. Song for Marion, for instance, conforms to the basic structure, but has no Disharmonist and no clear Dissenter.

This choir film structure is one that can also be seen (although usually not quite so dramatically intense) in most real choirs, as the choir builds itself for the next concert performance. This real-life drama is perhaps one of the reasons why choir singing is such a popular pastime. But there are also fascinating parallels with another genre of movies, namely sports films such as The Bad News Bears (1976), where the new coach has to take the league’s worst team to the top. It is interesting to speculate about the reasons for these parallels.

This film is best enjoyed if you are a choir singer yourself, but should work for anyone who wants to get in the right mood for the Holidays.


A Christmas Without Snow
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Year: 1980
Running time: 1 h 35 min
Director: John Korty
Stars: Michael Learned, John Houseman
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (496×384)
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: Divx (699 M)