Surpassed in iconicity only by his title role in 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney’s performance as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was a defining moment in the actor’s prolific, but all-too-short filmic career. Renowned for his ability to transform himself entirely through the use of makeup and by altering his physical mannerisms, the rugged and athletic Chaney is hardly recognizable as Quasimodo, twisted and crouched low with his monstrous cheek bones, an eye scarred shut, and his teeth all a mess. As you’d expect of the titular hunchback hero, though Chaney’s Quasimodo may be dim, but he’s not stupid. And he may be physically twisted, but he’s still nimble and vicious enough to fight off the hordes that would invade Notre Dame during the climax.
It’s a brilliant performance, but it’s by no means the film in a nutshell. Shot on the Universal backlot, Hunchback’s production designers transport viewers back in time to the 15th century with their superbly realistic recreation of Middle Ages Paris—Notre Dame Cathedral’s façade and all. What’s more, the other performers are totally absorbing in their own right, making it easy to overlook the fact that Quasimodo fades into the periphery of the narrative for long stretches. As a total package, the film can engage viewers and attract new audiences even to this day (as evidenced by the fact that my two-year-old happened into the room as I started the film and saw it through to the end with me).
And for new audiences in an advanced technological age, we now have a new HD transfer of the film produced by David Shepard and Serge Bromberg. This HD version is now available in a Deluxe Blu-ray Edition from Flicker Alley (who you should know). Within moments, this transfer of Hunchback had me near floating about the room in cinephilic ecstasy. It’s absolutely stunning, characterized by a clarity unmatched by any other release of the film, and this in spite of the many limitations the producers of this version encountered. Not the least of these limitations is the fact that the film apparently no longer exists on 35mm. Still, this release was sourced from a 16mm print struck from the original negative back in 1926! Sure, there is apparent wear here, but really that’s to be expected of any silent film release, HD or otherwise. And the wear is actually surprisingly minimal given the age of the materials. Unless a 35mm print turns up in the closet of a mental institution somewhere (and these things happen), this is the best the film is apt to ever look. After all, the existing prints aren’t getting any younger!
Now, although Hunchback is a time-tested classic deserving of a release chock full of bonus material, you have to approach Blu-rays of silent films expecting virtually nothing by way of special features. After all, home video wasn’t exactly something filmmakers planned for in 1923. But it’s that expectation that makes the release of a silent film from a boutique distributor like Flicker Alley or Criterion so exciting, as the producers of these releases still manage to put together a respectable host of features despite the age of the piece.
On the Deluxe Blu-ray Edition of Hunchback, Flicker Alley includes a feature-length commentary by Chaney scholar Michael F. Blake, who also penned the essay comprising the 12-page booklet included with the release. The release also boasts a digital reproduction of the original souvenir program for Hunchback, and an HD photo gallery featuring over 100 publicity and production stills. The most incredible component of these two features is actually tucked away in the middle of the photo gallery. There we find production stills of a scene deleted from the completed version of the film, which features the character of Josephus who is listed in the cast but does not appear in the final film. These stills are placed in chronological order and connected with intertitles explaining the action, thereby serving as a reconstruction of that deleted scene! It may be brief and incomplete, but to experience a scene expunged from the final version of a silent film in any form is a truly rare treat.
Finally, the release includes two video features. The first is a bit of rare footage showcasing an out-of-makeup, plain-clothed Lon Chaney demonstrating how he ascended the face of the cathedral and doing the Quasimodo walk. The second is what remains of a 1915 short called “Alas and Alack.” “Alas and Alack” is significant in that Chaney appeared here, in the third year of his film career, as a hunchback in a fantasy sequence—an obvious precursor to Hunchback. The film itself is rather hokey insofar as we traditionally understand the film form, as the bulk of the action in the film takes place internally for the characters as they mope around. A dissatisfied fisherman’s wife laments her existence on a beach when she is spied by a wealthy gentleman. She goes home, having not so much as spoken a single word to the gentleman, and he goes back to his yacht regretting not being able to be with her. The aforementioned fantasy sequence is tossed in in the middle there to demonstrate her internal turmoil, then Chaney as the fisherman pulls his boat ashore, and that’s it. When I say that’s it, though, I mean that in the most literal way possible, because the film ends abruptly there as the remainder of the footage has been lost to time. So that’s it. Where it goes from there, I can’t say, but it offers a fascinating look into the early work of Chaney, wherein we can see traces of his Quasimodo.
My appraisal of this release, in short, is this if you love film, you really do need to pick up the Flicker Alley Blu-ray of Hunchback.