Thursday, July 12, 2012

Movie Review: Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

As part of Ripon Cathedral's Summer Organ Festival 2012, they showed The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) with live organ improvisation by Alexander Mason. In spite of the stress and weariness of moving (we had to switch houses here in England, more on that in a later post), we decided to have dinner in Ripon and my wife would take the children home while I went to the movie.

We had dinner at the Unicorn Hotel's pub, part of the Wetherspoon chain. It was classic pub fare and we all enjoyed our meals (even if Lucy had a hard time choosing what to eat). I had a Daleside Old Boat Ale that was quite smooth to drink and went well with my chicken roast dinner. I should say that the pub is decorated following the theme of Lewis Carroll's Alice stories. The unicorn is the one who fights the lion in one of the book. We saw a full-size unicorn (though it was not live) and Tweedledum and Tweedledee behind the bar (though they were not serving drinks). Dinner finished just in time to get the kids in the car and get over to the cathedral.

The movie was back-projected on the screen that was about 15 feet above the ground. The copy of the film was a bit rubbish. It was a DVD with a grainy print and the title cards were often off an edge of the screen (either top or left), making them hard to read. Though maybe the projector was not aimed just right at the screen.

On the other hand, the organ playing was magnificent. Alexander Mason is an award-winning organist who teaches music and composition in addition to performing many free-lance improvisations, though improvising for the 90 minute running time of the movie is quite impressive. He was charmingly polite and was grinning from ear to ear at the end of the performance, partly from satisfaction at a job well done and partly from the warm applause.

A face only a mother/movie fan could love
As for the film itself, it is quite amazing. At the center of the film is Lon Chaney's performance. Known as the man of a thousand faces, this face is one of his most iconic. The make-up conjures feelings of horror and sympathy. He gives Quasimodo the hunchback a lot of pathos, especially through is expressive movements. The other actors are equally good (though they don't have the challenge of performing through so much make-up). Patsy Ruth Miller's Esmeralda is enchanting and innocent. It is easy to see how she catches each man's heart.

The set decoration is quite impressive, especially when the viewer can look from the projected image of the film's Notre Dame to an actual cathedral. The movie's set is spot on. All the locations are convincing. The plot is fairly thick with characters and events, but doesn't become confusing or overly simplified, in spite of a relatively brief running time.

This movie is definitely worth seeing and I am glad that I saw it in such special circumstances.

If you are looking for a better print, check this out at Amazon:

The movie is also available on YouTube, the print seems similar (the title cards are easier to read), though the music is orchestral with some choral elements thrown in. It looked pretty good, at least the first five minutes that I watched.

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