The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Monsters fascinate us. 

Let that sink in before continuing because it says a lot about humans.  From the very beginning of time, it seems the darker elements of our societies continue to ignite our imaginations.  That being said, consider this: Monsters continue to fascinate us.  All of us.  Whether serial killers or laboratory experiments, there is something so disturbing about them that we can’t - or won’t - look away.  They are frightening to see, when done right, on the silver screen and beg us to ask deeper questions about life itself. 

From the classic run of Universal’s horror features to the efforts of Hammer Studios to reintroduce these creatures in the late 1950’s, our love for monsters has never been short on supply . . . even when we lapsed on our demand for such things and we turning a blind eye to the Gothics in favor of really cheap B-grade flicks.

"ot Walt Disney’s version of the Quasimodo story. This is dark, dark prose."

Turns out, these screen legends have long been wandering the cinematic landscape of our collective nightmares and, in spite of differing censorship laws, have rarely NOT been recycled by Hollywood.  So why not devote a tiny corner of Reel Reviews to all things Universal and Hammer Studios related?

The time has come, my servants in Monstercide, to celebrate the madness which comes from a lifetime of loving the bad guys.  First up on the docket is a look at a silent giant among the monsters: 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a film which - while not a horror film - definitely offered the playbook on how to personalize the monster thanks to the heartbreaking performance from Lon Chaney

Directed by Wallace Worsley and produced by Carl Laemmle and Irving Thalberg, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was originally released on September 6th, 1923 and quickly became one of Universal’s top-grossing films and for good reason, too.  Chaney’s performance as the deformed creature at the center of the drama is mesmerizing and absolutely unforgettable, which is why many - like myself - consider this film to be the "true" first Universal monster film.The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Once upon a time ago, a movie as massive as Universal’s silent classic The Hunchback of Notre Dame could be made. It is considered one of the most unusual productions of the time period. For decades after its filming, the Universal lot was jammed with the façade of a super French cathedral and acres of sets designed by Elmer Sheeley to look like the medieval Paris depicted in Victor Hugo’s book.

Upon its completion, the pieces of the massive set – which took one year to build once the designs were finished – could be found everywhere for years afterwards. Is it any wonder then that somewhere near 3,500 extras were hired to fill the city streets of Hugo’s Paris? It shouldn’t be. This movie was as grand as Hugo’s book.

Optioned by and starring Lon Chaney, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was an unusual super production due to two reasons: Chaney had creative control over every aspect of the film and his boss, Carl Laemmle, was on an extended vacation and was not told of the money being spent. Good thing, too. He might not have approved it and Universal might not have had the hit that led to the money that produced Chaney’s 1925 follow-up, Phantom of the Opera.

Anything went on the set under his supervision but, more than that, Chaney chose director Wallace Worsley (with whom he had worked on four films previously), selected the cast, rewrote the script, and designed the restricting prosthetic hump and harness he would wear throughout the shoot. And no one said anything about his choices.

This is not Walt Disney’s version of the Quasimodo story. This is dark, dark prose. Chaney’s three-month adaptation is, at times, as frightening as it is beautiful. Through the makeup and harness and pain, Chaney wins over the audience with remarkable athleticism as no stunt people were used for his role. No one else could handle the swollen and dead eye makeup, the restraining hump and harness, and certainly no one could pull off the demands of the character as he swings high over Paris masking the sadness he feels with the melody of the bells.

He will be crowned the King of Fools. You may very well cry to see him smitten with the Gypsy girl, Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), as he scampers to and fro across the cathedral. Regardless of your response, there is no denying Chaney’s talent to hypnotize, even by today’s standards, in the role of the bent-over Quasimodo.

Let the MONSTER MAYHEM begin!

5/5 masks


The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Blu-ray Details

Home Video Distributor: Flicker Alley
Available on Blu-ray
- March 18, 2014
Screen Formats: 1.33:1
: None
Music: Dolby Digital 2.0
Discs: Blu-ray Disc; single disc
Region Encoding: Region-free playback

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) is a million-dollar super-production of Victor Hugo’s famous novel, presented in a 4K restoration by Universal Pictures. This epic adaptation recreated the Paris of 1482 complete with its own Notre Dame, and it established Lon Chaney as a monstrously sympathetic superstar. Chaney stars as Quasimodo, the mocked and vilified bell-ringer of Notre Dame who selflessly protects the starcrossed street performer Esmerelda (Patsy Ruth Miller), who is in an ill-fated love affair with the dashing Captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry). Chaney created the legendary makeup himself, and gave a performance of enormous sensitivity and pathos, launching him into Hollywood immortality.


There seems to be no surviving 35-millimeter material from the film. Flicker Alley has done yeoman’s work digitizing to produce a clean, low-contrast image. This edition is mastered from a multi-tinted 16mm print struck in 1926 from the original camera negative. Visible wear in the source material is diminished with a moderate amount of digital restoration. It is pictorially much better than earlier video editions and represents the best condition in which this landmark film survives today.


A new symphonic score arranged by Donald Hunsberger was recorded in the Czech Republic by a full orchestra conducted by Robert Israel, presented here in 2.0 channel stereo.


Extras include an early Lon Chaney short entitled Alas and Alack from 1915. There is less than 2 minutes of silent footage of Chaney on the set and some stills but the best part here is the audio essay, running as an optional commentary, by the author of many books about Chaney, Michael F. Blake. In the liner notes there is a facsimile reproduction of the original souvenir program and another 4 pages of essay by Blake.


  • None

Special Features:

  • Alas and Alack (20 min)
  • On Set (2 min)
  • Audio Essay
  • Digital Stills
  • Digital Souvenir Program

Blu-ray Rating

  Movie 5/5 stars
  Video  4/5 stars
  Audio 4/5 stars
  Extras 4/5 stars

Composite Blu-ray Grade 4/5 stars

 Film Details

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content throughout, graphic nudity, language and some drug use.
110 mins
: Che Chang
Che Chang; Kuang Ni
Sheng Fu; Kuan-Chun Chi; Ming Li Chen
: Action | Drama

Memorable Movie Quote:
Theatrical Distributor:
Shaw Brothers
Official Site:
Release Date:
December 1982 (United States
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date:
June 28, 1975
Synopsis: Impetuous young martial arts master Kuan takes a job at a textile factory where another disciple of the revered Shaolin discipline warns him about the rival Manchu clan, who run another nearby mill.


The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)