Hunchback of Notre Dame, The (1939): William Dieterle’s Oscar-Nominee, Starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara

William Dieterle, a filmmaker known for his socially-conscious dramas (the Oscar winner The Life o Emile Zola in 1937), directed The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is considered to be the best Hollywood version of Victor Hugo’s famous 1831 novel.

Grade: B+ (**** out of *****)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Theatrical poster

Intelligently adapted to the screen by Sonya Levien, and lavishly crafted, this fifteenth century Gothic tale, was one of RKO’s most expensive productions.

The gypsy girl Esmerlada (played by the very young and beautiful Maureen O’Hara) is accused of being a witch. She is framed for murder by the infatuated Chief Justice, only to be saved at the very last moment by the deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo (Laughton) of the Notre Dame Cathedral.

The Hugo novel, “Notre Dame de Paris,” was filmed in Hollywood before, as a 1923 silent, with Lon Chaney. Then there was a color version in 1957, with Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida as Esmeralda.

In 1982, there was a TV movie starring Anthony Hopkins, and there is also a Disney animated version.

Shot in black-and-white, the film received a bigger budget than the usual from its studio, RKO, so that elaborate sets would be built and the right atmosphere be conveyed.

But the elaborate sets never overwhelm the core story of the bond between Beauty and the Beast.  Moreover, the picture never succumbs to the temptation of being just a “chilly freak show.”

The film’s last act is particularly powerful. Esmeralda is pardoned by the King and she and the other gypsy people are freed to the success of Gringoire’s pamphlet. Realizing Gringoire’s love for her, she leaves with him, cheered by a huge crowd at the public square.

Observing the events from way high up on the cathedral, the heartbroken Quasimodo sadly asks a gargoyle, “Why was I not made of stone, like thee?”.

With the help of heavy make up, Laughton renders a scary, haunting, utterly compelling performance, which succeeds in humanizing his character. Many industry members believed that he deserved an Oscar nomination for his work.  (Laughton had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1933, for The Private Life of King Henry VIII).

The characters of Claude and Jehan Frollo are changed from the novel, as the studio was concerned that portraying the priest as a villain would violate the Hays Production Code. In the novel, Claude is 36 and depicted as villainous Archdeacon of Notre Dame; in the film, he is older, and the good Archbishop of Paris. His younger brother Jehan (“Jean” in film), who in the novel is a teenaged drunken student and juvenile delinquent, is in the film a middle-aged villain, Paris’ chief justice and close advisor to King Louis XI.

Released as a prestige-movie event on December 29, 1939, the film, made on a big budget of $1,826,000, was a box-office hit, earning $3,155,000.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Sound Recording: John Aalberg

Score: Alfred Newman

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Sound Recording Oscar was Bernard B. Brown for “When Tomorrow Comes.”

The Best Score Oscar went to the group of composers and arrangers, who worked on John Ford’s Western “Stagecoach.”



RKO production

Produced by Pandro S. Berman

Running time: 116 minutes

Directed by William Dieterle

Screenplay: Sonya Levien, Bruno Frank, based on the 1831 novel by by Victor

Music by: Alfred Newman (musical adaptation and original composition)

Cinematography Joseph H. August

Edited by William Hamilton, Robert Wise (later on a distinguished director)

Production and distribution: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: December 29, 1939

Budget $1,826,000

Box office $3,155,000



Charles Laughton as Quasimodo

Cedric Hardwicke as Dom Claude Frollo

Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda

Thomas Mitchell as Clopin

Edmond O’Brien as Pierre Gringoire

Walter Hampden as Archbishop