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Film / The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

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"Why was I not made of stone like thee?"
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The Hunchback of Notre Dame is an American 1939 black-and-white film based on the Victor Hugo novel by the same name. It was produced by RKO Pictures, and featured Charles Laughton as Quasimodo, Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda, Cedric Hardwicke as Judge Frollo, and Thomas Mitchell as Clopin.

Conceived as a sound remake of the 1923 silent version, this 1939 version was probably the most famous and iconic movie adaptation of the story up until Disney came out with their take. Many elements introduced by the 1939 version have been included in later adaptations. Some of these elements relate to the theme of social injustice, and were almost certainly intended as a topical commentary on what was going on in Europe back then, on the eve of World War II.

Since The Hays Code would not allow a member of the clergy to be portrayed as a villain, Archdeacon Claude Frollo was, not for the first or last time, made into a Decomposite Character, with his negative traits given to a character employed in a secular profession. This time, Archbishop Claude Frollo and Judge Jean Frollo are brothers, with the former being the Good Shepherd and the latter being Quasimodo's evil master. For the sake of coherence, this article will refer to Archbishop Claude Frollo as "the Archbishop" and Judge Jean Frollo as "Frollo."

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The Hunchback of Notre Dame provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Heroism: As in the earlier 1923 version, Claude Frollo is a purely good character, and the villainous role is given to his brother.
  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • Jehan Frollo is renamed Jean Frollo, assuming he's even supposed to be the same character. To be sure, Jehan had his role in the 1923 version, but he has nothing to do with his book counterpart.
    • The goat's name is changed from Djali to Aristotle. Also, he belongs to Gringoire rather than Esmeralda.
  • Age Lift: Assuming that Jean Frollo is a version of the novel's Jehan Frollo, his book counterpart was 16-20 years old, the same age as Quasimodo and Esmeralda. In this film, he is played by a 46-year-old Cedric Hardwicke, making the line "He is your foundling" more logical than if the character's original age had been kept.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Esmeralda escapes execution and goes off to be with Gringoire. Quasimodo remains in the cathedral, totally alone. The film ends with him caressing a gargoyle and asking, "Why was I not made of stone like thee?"
  • Chekhov's Gun: Workmen specifically mention a vat of molten lead. Later Quasimodo uses it to fend off the mob.
  • Counting to Three: When confronted with a beggar who refuses to pay his share into the common fund, Clopin gives him to the count of three to reconsider — and stabs him just as he says, "Three."
  • Death by Adaptation: In the original novel, Phoebus turns up alive after his supposed murder. In this version, he was apparently Killed Off for Real. At least, he never appears again after the murder scene.
  • Demoted to Extra: Phoebus is still in the story, but he's pretty much just there to be killed by Frollo.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: Quasimodo does not get Esmeralda. Or anyone.
  • Evil Reactionary: The villainous Frollo is opposed to progress and fights to maintain the medieval system at all costs. He's especially afraid of the newfangled Gutenberg press and the social changes it might bring.
  • Feel No Pain: When Quasimodo is whipped, he shows no signs of pain. Onlookers are stunned.
  • The Future Will Be Better: A major theme of the film, as encapsulated by the fact that it's set against the backdrop of Europe making the transition from The Middle Ages to The Renaissance. The tropes End of an Age and Dawn of an Era also apply.
  • I Have No Son!: After Frollo admits to the murder of Phoebus, and declares that he will proceed with killing Esmeralda for it, the Archbishop replies, "I am no longer your brother."
  • It Will Never Catch On: Christopher Columbus comes up in conversation, with Frollo dismissing his foolish idea that the world is round. (This is the part where we point out that no educated person in the Middle Ages actually believed the world was flat.)
  • Kangaroo Court: Esmeralda's trial, as in the novel.
  • Matte Shot: Matte paintings are used extensively throughout the film. Most notably, only the bottom section of the Notre Dame facade was actually built on the backlot. Everything above that is filled in with matte paintings.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: This version has sexually frustrated Frollo staring at Esmeralda's breasts when they meet for the first time.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: This is one of the versions in which Esmeralda ends up with Gringoire.
  • Race Lift: It's hard to say where exactly the film comes down on this trope. In the original novel, Esmeralda was revealed to be a white French girl who had been raised by Gypsies. This film excludes that revelation, so she's presumably a Gypsy by birth in this version. Except she's played by the very white Maureen O'Hara, who is given absolutely no Brownface makeup for the role, so maybe she's still a white girl raised by Gypsies and it just wasn't mentioned onscreen. In any case, this movie definitely started the trend for Esmeralda being a "real" Gypsy.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: King Louis XI, at least by medieval standards, and certainly compared to Frollo. The Archbishop is even more reasonable.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Frollo keeps several cats in his study.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: As in the earlier 1923 version, Esmeralda lives. This may be the first version to spare Quasimodo as well.
  • Victoria's Secret Compartment: Where Esmeralda puts the coin King Louis XI throws her.
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