The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939 film)

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Theatrical poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay by Sonya Levien
Bruno Frank (adaptation)
Based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
by Victor Hugo
Starring Charles Laughton
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Thomas Mitchell
Maureen O'Hara
Edmond O'Brien
Alan Marshal
Walter Hampden
Music by Alfred Newman
(musical adaptation and original composition)
Cinematography Joseph H. August A.S.C.
Edited by William Hamilton
Robert Wise
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Release date
  • December 29, 1939 (1939-12-29)[1]
Running time
116 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,826,000[2]
Box office $3,155,000[2]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1939 American film starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara.[3][4] Directed by William Dieterle and produced by Pandro S. Berman, the film is based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel of the same name.

For this production RKO Radio Pictures built on their movie ranch a massive medieval city of Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the largest and most extravagant sets ever constructed.


Set in Paris, France in the Late Middle Ages, the film opens with Louis XI, the King of France, and Judge Jean Frollo, the King's Chief Justice of Paris, visiting a printing shop. Frollo is determined to do everything in his power to rid Paris of anything he sees as evil, including the printing press and gypsies, who at the time are persecuted and prohibited from entering Paris. That day is Paris' annual celebration, the Feast of Fools. Esmeralda, a young gypsy girl, is seen dancing in front of an audience of people. Quasimodo, the hunchback and bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, is crowned the King of Fools until Frollo catches up to him and takes him back to the church.

Esmeralda is caught by guards for entering Paris without a permit and is being chased after until she seeks safety in Notre Dame, in which the Archbishop of Paris, Frollo's brother Claude, protects her. She prays to the Virgin Mary to help her fellow gypsies only to be confronted by Frollo, who accuses her of being a heathen. Afterwards, she asks King Louis to help her people, to which he agrees. Frollo then takes her up to the bell tower where they encounter Quasimodo, of whom she is frightened. She tries to run away from the hunchback until he catches up to her and physically carries her away. Pierre Gringoire, a poor street poet, witnesses all this, and calls out to Captain Phoebus and his guards, who capture Quasimodo just in time. Esmeralda is then saved and starts falling in love with Phoebus. Gringoire later trespasses the Court of Miracles but is saved by Esmeralda from hanging by marrying him.

The next day, Quasimodo is sentenced to be lashed in the square and publicly humiliated afterwards. Frollo, seeing this, realizes that he can't stop the sentence because it already happened, and abandons him instead. However, Esmeralda arrives and gives him water, and this awakens Quasimodo's love for her.

Later that night, Esmeralda is invited by the nobles to their party. Frollo shows up to the party. Afterwards, she dances in front of the nobles and moves away from the crowd with Phoebus to a garden where they share a moment between each other. Frollo then kills Phoebus out of jealousy, and Esmeralda is wrongly accused of his death. Afterwards, Frollo confesses the crime to his brother, and, knowing that the Archbishop refuses to help him because he is the murderer, intends to sentence Esmeralda to death for it (which he does), saying that she has "bewitched" him. Esmeralda is to be hanged in the gallows, but just as this is about to happen, Quasimodo saves her by taking her to the cathedral.

When Gringoire and Clopin realize that the nobles are planning to revoke Notre Dame's right of sanctuary, they both try different methods in order to save Esmeralda from hanging. Gringoire writes a pamphlet that will prevent this from happening, and Clopin leads the beggars to storm the cathedral. At the Palace of Justice, Frollo reads the pamphlet to King Louis. After seeing a crowd protesting against the removal of Notre Dame's sanctuary law, the King realizes that the pamphlet is creating public opinion, which can influence kings to make decisions. However, Frollo warns him that public opinion is dangerous. After the Archbishop arrives to inform the King of Notre Dame's attack and that Esmeralda is innocent, Frollo confesses his crime to the King, for which Louis orders Olivier to arrest him. Afterwards, the King talks to Gringoire after reading his pamphlet. Meanwhile, Quasimodo and the guards of Paris fight off Clopin and the beggars. Afterwards, he sees Frollo in the bell tower seeking to harm Esmeralda, and throws him off the cathedral top. Later that morning, Esmeralda is pardoned by the King and freed from hanging, and her Gypsy people are also finally freed. Then, she leaves with Gringoire and a huge crowd out of the public square. Quasimodo sees all this from high on the cathedral and says sadly to a gargoyle, "Why was I not made of stone, like thee?".


Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda

Differences from the novel[edit]

  • The characters of Claude Frollo and Jehan Frollo are changed from the novel, as was done in the 1923 film. In the novel Claude is depicted as a villainous 36-year-old archdeacon of Notre Dame; in the film he is the good Archbishop of Paris and is older in age. His younger brother Jehan, who in the novel is a teenaged drunken student and a juvenile delinquent, is in the film a middle-aged villain who is a judge and a close advisor to the king.
  • In the film Jehan Frollo's first name is given as "Jean".
  • In the film it is said that Phoebus has been killed, while in the original novel he's only hurt. Additionally, the end isn't the same as in the novel (Esmeralda is killed by hanging, Quasimodo goes to the cemetery and hugs her body until years later they are discovered and, while trying to separate them, Quasimodo's bones turn to dust).
  • The film makes it clear that in the end Esmeralda truly loves Gringoire, whereas in the novel she merely tolerates him.
  • The goat in the original novel is named Djali, is female, and is Esmeralda's pet. In the film the goat is a black male goat named Aristotle and he is not Esmeralda's goat, though he does bear similarities with the original Djali.
  • In the novel Claude Frollo visits Esmeralda in her prison cell where he confesses his lust for her before she is led to the gallows. In the film, Jehan does this in a hiding place during the nobles' party; later, after Esmeralda is falsely accused of killing Phoebus, Gringoire visits her in the prison cell to console her.
  • In the novel, when Esmeralda is taken in front of Notre Dame to do public penance after being found falsely guilty of stabbing Phoebus, Claude Frollo (who actually was the one who stabbed him) tells her that he will be her salvation if she promises to love him, and when she denies this, he allows her to be hanged before she is saved by Quasimodo. Given the fact that he is the good guy in the film and therefore he never stabbed Phoebus, he claims her innocence and does not allow her to do penance; however, Jehan (who killed Phoebus and found Esmeralda guilty of this) still orders Esmeralda to be hanged in the gallows until Quasimodo saves her.

Award nominations[edit]

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards:[6]


On review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film received an approval rating of 100%, based on 11 reviews from critics.[7] Variety called the film a "super thriller-chiller" but found that the elaborate sets tended to overwhelm the story, particularly in the first half.[8] Harrison's Reports wrote, "Very good! Audiences should be thrilled anew by this lavish remake of Victor Hugo's famous novel."[9] Film Daily called it "compelling, dynamic entertainment."[10] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that Laughton "achieves something like a tour de force. The lines themselves (such modernisms as 'to buy protection'), along with a perfunctory plot arrangement, are among the weak features of the film, which otherwise is a vivid pictorial drama of fifteenth-century Paris."[11] E. H. Harvey of The Harvard Crimson said that the film "in all is more than entertaining." He said that "the mediocre effects offer a forceful contrast to the great moments" in the film.[12] However, Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote a mostly negative review of the film, finding it "little more" than "a freak show". Though he acknowledged it was "handsome enough of production and its cast is expert," he called it "almost unrelievedly brutal and without the saving grace of unreality which makes Frankenstein's horrors a little comic."[13]

The movie was very popular but because of its cost only made a profit of $100,000.[2]

Home video[edit]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released on September 21, 2001 on DVD by Image Entertainment. It was issued on Blu-ray disc by Warner Brothers on June 9, 2015.


  1. ^ Hanson, Patricia King, ed. (1993). The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1931-1940. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 976. ISBN 0-520-07908-6. 
  2. ^ a b c Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p56
  3. ^ Variety film review; December 20, 1939, page 14.
  4. ^ Harrison's Reports film review; December 23, 1939, page 202.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Retrieved 2017-10-24. 
  6. ^ "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-12. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. December 20, 1939. p. 14. 
  9. ^ "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 202 December 23, 1939. 
  10. ^ "Reviews of the New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films & Film Folk, Inc.: 4 December 15, 1939. 
  11. ^ Mosher, John (December 30, 1939). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 51. 
  12. ^ Harvey, E. H. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The Harvard Crimson. Wednesday December 16, 1953. Retrieved on February 20, 2010.
  13. ^ Nugent, Frank S. (January 1, 1940). "Movie Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved September 18, 2015. 

External links[edit]