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)

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The Ace of Hearts (1921)

Eight men, one woman. They have formed a secret society, the aim of which is to better mankind by murdering those who deserve to die. They have gathered on this day to decide if a certain person will die, and if so, who is to perform the deed. Such is the beginning of The Ace of Hearts. The title indicates the fateful card that is used to randomly choose the murderer.

The Ace of Hearts (1921)

But love is about to complicate our plot. Two members are rivals for the love of the only woman, Lilith, but she loves neither back. She only has feelings for the Cause. Ah, but what will happen when one of the two is chosen to commit a murder for that Cause? Can she separate her feelings for the man and the ideal? This plot may seem a bit corny, but works really well togehter with the excellent actors and the nice photography.

Around this time, film cameras slowly started to move around; to pan, to track, to zoom. The camera in The Ace of Hearts, however, is always completely static. But that is not entirely a problem, because when the limits of the set are known, the director and cameraman can use the set as if it was a painting, carefully composing each detail to balance the whole picture. Akira Kurosawa was to use similar techniques a lot in many of his best films, decades later, and Wallace Worsley does it here, almost to perfection. Watch, for example, The Man Who Deserves to Die striding slowly from the restaurant entrance to the dining hall’s vault. Splendid!

If you are a fan of Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, then this may or may not be a film to your taste. This is the only film I have seen where Chaney does not in any way use heavy makeup or prosthetics for enhancing his role and performance. Chaney is good enough an actor that he is excellent even without this, but if your fancy are his many amazing horror masks, then this film may disappoint you.

Like any silent film, I am sure this one would have been even better with a good soundtrack. However, thanks to the film’s poetic imaging and slow but deliberate tempo, I did not find the lack of sound disturbing. The mere visuals keep tension up by themselves. If silence makes you nervous, a version with an acceptable organ score is also available, but unfortunately it has lower image quality.

This film is best enjoyed as a conceptual sequel to The Penalty from the year before. The Ace of Hearts had the same director, the same star (Chaney), and was based on a novel by the same author, Gouverneur Morris. And even though the films are set in very different surroundings, they share the delving into the darker recesses of the human psyche.

Lon Chaney, Leatrice Joy and John Bowers in The Ace of Hearts (1921)

The Ace of Hearts
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Year: 1921
Running time: 1 h 14 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×482)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (889 M)

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney. That is all that really needs to be said, and the review could end here. But perhaps a few things about the film The Penalty should be added, just for clarity.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The plot is actually very interesting, even without Chaney’s magnificent interpretation. A young boy gets both his legs amputated by mistake. As he grows up, unloved and unloving, he gets involved with the criminal underworld, eventually rising to become a minor but ruthless crime lord, nicknamed Blizzard, and with aspirations for greatness. He has many young girls among his underlings, and his favourite gets to pedal his piano (since his handicap prevents him from doing so himself). The police has nothing substantial on him, so they decide to send their best female agent. Meanwhile, Blizzard is planning revenge on the doctor who amputated his legs, and on his beautiful sculptor daughter.

Even though it tends to get a bit melodramatic at times, this plot along with the crew’s skillful work are almost enough to raise it to the level of memorable contemporary pieces, such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, The Mark of Zorro or Klostret i Sendomir. But then along comes Chaney and quite by himself elevates the whole thing to the level of masterpiece.

This film is best enjoyed for Chaney’s brilliant acting. He is in total control at every moment. Someone compared him with the Robert De Niro of silent film, and there is some truth in that. Not only because of the acting, but also because of his absolute devotion to each role. For this film, he built a contraption that tied his legs up so that he looks totally convincingly amputated. It is said that it was so painful that he could only wear it for ten minutes at a stretch, and still the man could act better than most of today’s stars.

Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 30 min
Director: Wallace Worsley
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (622 M)

Outside the Law (1920)

Crime, treachery, redemption, friendship, love. Those are some of the ingredients in the classic silent Outside the Law, directed by Tod Browning.

Priscilla Dean in Outside the Law (1920)

Browning has gone down in history for a handful of truly classic films, not least Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). But he made a number of other movies that deserve to be remembered, often working together with Lon Chaney. Outside the Law is an excellent example, not least because of Lon Chaney’s role.

Chaney, one of the greatest actors of silent cinema, especially in dramatic roles, is best remembered today for his horror pieces, but he is just as good here, playing a low-life gangster. Though Chaney is perhaps the best actor in the movie, the rest of the cast, not least Priscilla Dean, are also very good.

The copy available at the Internet Archive is not perfect. There are some defects from the aged film print, especially towards the end. For me, these are easily suffered when watching a good film such as this.

This film is best enjoyed in comparison with some of its contemporaries. D.W. Griffith was one director who dealt with some similar themes around the same time, but while Griffith and others tend to become overly sentimental and melodramatic, Browning has a much firmer grip on his drama. Sure, there is some melodrama at times, but no more than necessary to keep the plot on course.

Lon Chaney in Outside the Law (1920)

Outside the Law
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Year: 1920
Running time: 1 h 15 min
Director: Tod Browning
Stars: Lon Chaney
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: Acceptable; classical music partly synchronized with the images; partly silent
Sound quality: Good
Best file format: DivX (600 M)