100 Years On, Chaney’s Performance Still Captivates
By Don Stradley
“He was able to convey not just realism but such emotional agony that it was shocking…and fascinating.”
- Joan Crawford, on her memories of working with Lon Chaney.
In late August, 1923, New Yorkers prepared for the premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That is, New Yorkers with money. At a time when a movie ticket cost 25-cents, the best seats at the Astor Theater on Broadway and 45th Street were going for ten bucks a shot, nearly $180.00 in today’s money. This was not some slapstick comedy short starring a bug-eyed comic. This was a prestige picture from Universal Studios. Lon Chaney was in it as Quasimodo, the lovelorn bell ringer of Paris, and he had outdone himself with grotesque makeup, false teeth, a 20-pound plaster hump, and a leather harness. His face had been so distorted for weeks at a time that he was left with vision problems for the rest of his life. The film had been Chaney’s idea. He was stepping up to give the performance of a lifetime, his physical comfort be damned.
He’d already established himself as a purveyor of society’s misfits and had pitched the hunchback idea to producer Irving Thalberg, who then convinced studio head Carl Laemmle that Victor Hugo’s classic novel was perfect for Universal. More than most actors, Chaney helped nurse the production along, sitting in on studio meetings and providing input. New York newspapers had plenty to cover in the late summer of 1923, the weeks full of political news, kidnappings, and a tragic earthquake in Japan, but for a moment, not even the heroics of Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium mattered more to New Yorkers than the hunchback’s arrival at the Astor.
Much of the hullabaloo had to do with the sheer extravagance and grandeur of the production. By the time the movie debuted, moviegoers had heard all about the million-dollar budget, the long shooting schedule, the majestic scenery, and the enormous company of nearly 4,000 actors. The Astor would also make room for a full chorus of singers and a 25-piece orchestra. It would be an event created with a single goal in mind: to astonish. Moreover, Chaney was making a personal appearance that week at Carnegie Hall as part of a night to benefit war veterans, after which he was to take part in an American Legion ceremony to honor the late president, Warren Harding. This set off a series of false sightings, with New Yorkers convinced they’d seen Chaney at Penn Station or in a theater lobby. The problem was that no one was absolutely certain of what the reclusive star looked like.
The movie was a blockbuster success earning rave reviews. Patsy Ruth Miller was praised as Esmeralda, the gypsy girl who wins Quasimodo’s heart, but it was 40-year-old Chaney who walked away with the great notices and became a superstar. “Chaney gives a remarkable performance,” wrote The New York Times, adding the replica of the Notre Dame cathedral was “really marvelous.” Of Chaney, NY American reviewer Alan Dale wrote, “He is as solid as Notre Dame itself.”
Some critics groused that the movie changed too much of Hugo’s novel, and some felt the film was a bore until the second half. Some even mocked the scope of the production. “It is massive, if not art,” reported the Brooklyn Eagle. Yet there was no doubting something monumental had taken place at the Astor, with the Daily News reporting, “enthusiastic first-nighters loudly applauded.” And the applause would ring out loudly for several months to come, for the Astor treated The Hunchback of Notre Dame as it might a long-running Broadway show. It held the exclusive New York rights to the movie, and tickets, reduced after the opening night prices, were in such demand that the program was immediately sold out through the next year. As the movie played to capacity at the Astor throughout the winter, Carl Laemmle eventually added the Shubert-Crescent theater in Brooklyn to help with the area’s need to see the horrific but gallant Quasimodo. By then the movie had started playing in other parts of the country, with a glittering November premiere at Los Angeles’ Criterion Theater.
Later, with his stardom peaking, Chaney offered variations of Quasimodo. He may have been “The man of a thousand faces,” but many of Chaney’s follow-up roles had DNA leading back to Notre Dame. What was Erik, the phantom, if not Quasimodo in an opera house? He played melancholy clowns, creeps, and various other misfits, often fatally burdened by unrequited love. Yet he couldn’t repeat the Quasimodo formula. What he got instead was more bizarre, more brutal, meaner, great additions to his gallery of characters – he would call Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) his favorite film - but the hunchback’s heroic quality was elusive. He couldn’t find Esmeralda again, so his characters became darker, more obsessive.
Chaney died young at 47 from complications of throat cancer. Since 1923 the story of Quasimodo has been reimagined many times. Charles Laughton was a gentle hunchback in 1939 for Universal, and in a 1957 French production Anthony Quinn was a heavily perspiring and macho hunchback. There have been made-for-TV versions, and productions from Australia and the United Kingdom. There was even a Disney animated feature in 1996, and a direct to video sequel odiously titled, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II. There will, no doubt, be more versions in the future. Still, Chaney’s version remains the most important. It made Quasimodo a household name in houses that had never heard of Victor Hugo. Carl Laemmle’s niece, Carla, summed it up best. There was something about Chaney’s performance, she said, that was “gruesome, yet pathetic. Your heart went out to him.”