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The amazing Charles Laughton in the title role of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"

The amazing Charles Laughton in the title role of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”

“The Hunchbck of Notre Dame” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St.  Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film sereies Hollywood’s Greatest Year, which offers movies released in 1939.

During the 1930s RKO wasn’t known as a prestige movie studio.

It wasn’t a poverty row operation, but neither did it have the sort of big budgets and lavish productions that were the pride of outfits like M-G-M, Fox, and Paramount.

But for 1939’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” RKO pulled out all the stops.

A replica of Medieval Paris was built on the RKO ranch in the San Fernando Valley, with a life-size recreation of the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. It was so tall that local officials insisted on a blinking red light being placed atop it as a warning to aircraft.

An RKO sound team was dispatched to France to record the cathedral’s bells – those recordings were later incorporated into the film’s soundtrack.

The man many viewed as the greatest actor of the day – Britain’s Charles Laughton – was hired to play the deformed title character of Victor Hugo’s story. William Dieterle — revered for such films as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” “The Prince and the Pauper,” ” The Life of Emile Zola” and “Juarez” – was given directing duties.

True, the studio tried to save some money by casting a couple of key roles with relatively inexpensive newcomers. But as we’ll see, even those players were on the cusp of greatness.

Before it was over RKO spent nearly $2 million on the production, making it the studio’s most expensive to date. But the results were hard to argue with.

For this “Hunchback” is not only the best version of the tale ever committed to celluloid, it is a remarkable artistic achievement – hugely emotional and entertaining, packed with political/social subtext, and marked by a fantastically detailed sense of time and place…not to mention great performances.

Just how good the film is going to be is obvious from the first scene, a huge celebration unfolding in the shadow of Notre Dame.  Thousands of Parisians are celebrating a feast day with drinking, carousing, jugglers, and dancers. Dieterle, who cut his cinema teeth on German expressionism, captures the chaos with rapid editing and tilted camera angles that give the proceedings an almost drunken feel.

Laughton’s Quasimodo, the cathedral’s deaf, deformed bell ringer, is introduced in an amazing closeup as his head is thrust through a curtain. He’s been nominated as the king of fools, an honor given the ugliest person in Paris.  He more than earns it.


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