The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1939 American monochrome film starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda. It was directed by William Dieterle and produced by Pandro S. Berman. The film is considered by many reviewers to be the best of the many film versions of Victor Hugo’s classic novel.
King Louis XI is a wise and old king and Frollo is the Chief Justice. Frollo gazes on the gypsy girl, Esmeralda, in the church during Fool’s Day and sends Quasimodo to catch her. Quasimodo, with the girl, is captured by Phoebus, Captain of the Guards, who frees the girl. The court sentences Quasimodo to be flogged, and the only one who will give him water while he is tied in the square is Esmeralda.
Later, at a party of nobles, Esmeralda again meets both Frollo, who is bewitched by her. When Phoebus is stabbed to death, Esmeralda is accused of the murder, convicted by the court and sentenced to hang. Clopin, King of the Beggars, Gringoire the Husband of Esmeralda, and Quasimodo, the bellringer, all try different ways to save her from the gallows.
RKO specifically wanted to outdo the 1923 silent version of the story, so a vigorous campaign that spared no expense was undertaken. Much attention was given to advance publicity; no pictures of Charles Laughton in full Quasimodo make-up and costume were allowed to be seen so that a first-time viewing would be a guaranteed shock.
Also, the studio hired (at Laughton’s request) leading makeup artist Perc Westmore to supervise makeup. Unfortunately, Westmore and Laughton had heated quarrels before a final image for Quasimodo was agreed upon.
At a cost of $1.8 million, this was one of the most expensive films ever made by RKO Pictures. The Notre Dame replica alone cost $250,000. However, even though it was pitted against Gone With the Wind at the box-office, it grossed approximately $3.15 million.
The score was composed by acclaimed and prolific composer Alfred Newman, who also composed the score to the Vincent Price starrer DragonWyck. The film is also notable for featuring an uncredited early screen appearance by horror icon Rondo Hatton.