Monday, 14 December 2015
LON CHANEY - Part III
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) was the part of a lifetime for Lon Chaney, an ideal one for an actor justly acclaimed as the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. It could be argued that Victor Hugo’s Quasimodo is a character actor’s Hamlet; an immensely attractive challenge in conveying a wide scope of inner emotions and depth whilst embracing whole-heartedly the outward appearance of a reviled monster. In short, it was a perfect fit for him.
Such was Chaney’s desire to play Quasimodo that he investigated the possibility of producing it himself financed by private investors back in 1921. However, the shockwaves reverberating from Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s baseless rape trial sent Hollywood into a moral panic. Any association with scandal rendered films an unattractive prospect for outside investors. Although Arbuckle was found resoundingly innocent of the rape of Virginia Rappe, Tinseltown opted to enforce its own standards in-house by forming the MPPDA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) in 1922. It was colloquially known as the Hays Code after its first President –ex-Postmaster General William Hays and then later became the modern MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America). From here on, Hollywood film and its creators’ moral conduct was held accountable from within. Hays, nicknamed ‘the Tsar of all the Rushes’, had a morality clause inserted into all contracts that could nullify your employment if bad behaviour found its way into the press and brought the studio into disrepute. This was also the beginning of official film classification (and censorship) in the USA, which from the 1930s onwards would inevitably begin to butt heads with the content of horror movies.
Nevertheless, Chaney was able to get THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME funded by his (and his business manager Alfred Grasso’s) connections at Universal, most prominently via legendary production genius Irving Thalberg, who convinced Carl Laemmle to stump up an enormous budget for that time of $1,250,000. A large chunk of this would be spent on realising the superb sets on the studio back lot, which Laemmle later admired on a visit as the biggest he’d ever seen. Original plans to film in the actual Parisian locations were scuppered by the inability to disguise the modern buildings around the real cathedral. By now, Hollywood production design was becoming hugely impressive at copying European period constructions with such epics as BEN HUR. Hugo’s novel needed and received a tremendous reproduction of Notre Dame Cathedral.
Chaney’s involvement in the project was total, right down to the authenticity of the script and having director approval. He chose to put himself in the safe hands of Wallace Worsley once again who’d now directed him to great effect in four previous films. This seemed an especially wise move in view of the colossal scale of THE HUNCHBACK. The lavish sets had to be populated by thousands of extras with equally plush costumes along with the principals, needing literally the military precision of a Colonel McGee as costume supervisor. To save time on character/costume continuity, the same extras were employed for the shoot duration.
THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME may well hold the record for the night shoot involving the greatest amount of lighting rigs and crew in history when the gypsy crowd tries to take the cathedral by force. Covering the scope of this sequence with light was an epic task but is well worth it to see the final exciting battle on screen. It’s just unfortunate that the surviving print suffers from extensive thin scratches that, though still watchable, makes even the interior scenes look as though they were filmed in a rainstorm.
Arguably the greatest illumination in the film though is Lon Chaney’s performance. He applied himself to the hunchback with his trademark meticulous attention to detail and it shows. When choosing his ‘look’ he was helped by a rare author’s version of the novel he found where Hugo had provided sketches of how he envisioned Quasimodo. For the externals, Chaney used his long-term dental expert Dr James L. Howard to fashion a complicated lower-jaw unit that gave extra prominence to his bottom teeth, his right eye was blotted out and the skill of the hump body prosthesis can be seen when he is stripped to the waist at the pillory – his body is seamlessly bulked up and hirsute down the arms.
Chaney’s inner life radiates poignantly though the mask of his face and physique. His Quasimodo, like Charles Laughton’s in the later version, is a child in an adult’s body, simple and good of heart but quick to change mood from happiness to anger. He is tender and pathetic and yet his wounded sensitivity is tempered with brooding and edge. When we are introduced to him, he is leaning over a balcony high up in the cathedral, safe from the mocking of the townsfolk, his melancholy head weighing on his hands. In a flash, he spits down on the crowd in contempt, teasing them with dextrous ape-like swinging. When he later rings the cathedral bells, (both his beloved job and the curse that robbed him of his hearing), Quasimodo plunges down on the ropes, inverting himself upward with unfettered joy, campanology without camp.
The same truthfulness of performance sadly doesn’t extend to the other actors. Brandon Hurst’s Jehan is a mannered villain who telegraphs this gesturally at least twice by deliberately obscuring the bottom half of his face with his cape - as though channelling a dastardly moustache-twirler with railway tracks for Esmeralda on his mind. The casting search for her incidentally was highly-publicised, reminiscent of the later national one for Scarlett O’Hara in GONE WITH THE WIND. Unfortunately the hunt stopped at Patsy Ruth Miller whose weak simpering is sometimes gratefully bolstered by more emotive title cards. To be fair, she is assisted in her crime of no passion by the equally limp Norman Kerry as Phoebus, who in this adaptation is boosted to being her main lover. In classical mythology, his namesake is ‘bright, shining and radiant’. Kerry shuns any such suitable qualities, combining one of his trademark wax moustaches with long curls that are less ‘masculine Captain of the Guard’ and more ‘1980s trailer park heavy-metal wimp’. Their romantic scenes together feel like tiresome padding, alternating between lukewarm noodling and declarative hammy posturing. It’s like the Marx Brothers films where you keep waiting for the awfully twee juvenile lovers to exit before the boys mercifully come back on. Regrettably, these deathless sequences remind you that plot-wise Quasimodo is relegated to a surprisingly brief number of scenes.
Fortunately, though our tragic bell-ringer sounds a long-overdue death knell for this Esmerelda, in the climax we are restored to a welcome full-blooded bracing action, thanks to Chaney - and Worsley’s direction. As aforementioned, the revolutionary storming of the cathedral where Quasimodo gave her sanctuary is thrilling, culminating in Quasimodo’s weapon of choice on the clamouring crowd below: “A fiery baptism – MOLTEN LEAD!” shouts the title card. Notice the brute strength with which Chaney throttles and drags Jehan to the balcony before he is stabbed by the villain. This is drive and commitment to character in action, unafraid to risk lessening our sympathy, even though Jehan clearly deserves his appointment with the pavement.
It’s worth mentioning that Worsley also adds a couple of symbolic insert shots that work nicely in the film. When Phoebus first dates Esmerelda, to suggest his typical behaviour we are treated to a few moments of a spider on his web crawling toward a caught butterfly. In the moving ending as Quasimodo dies, resigned to exclusion from the love of his heroine, we are left with the image of the giant bell slowing to stillness.
Interestingly, Victor Hugo’s novel does not end with our lovelorn hero perishing in loss as we are so used to seeing in the films. He has Esmerelda die from a hanging and then there is an epilogue in which a pair of intertwined skeletons are found together in a dungeon – one marked by a curved spine. When separated, the deformed one turns to dust…
Regardless of supporting cast weaknesses, THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME was a huge international hit. Universal’s advance feedback tipped them off and they were keen to get their leading man on a nationwide publicity tour thumping the tub for the studio’s proud new release. Chaney hated doing interviews. He guarded his privacy closely and sagely understood the value for his multi-faceted career of being an elusive figure – but reluctantly agreed to attend the successful New York premiere. Afterwards, the film was cut by two reels (roughly twenty minutes) to program more cinema showings yet even with a resulting unevenness it was still a box-office megahit.
At last, Lon Chaney was a superstar…